The drummer, who grew up in a household steeped in top-level twentieth-century classical music performance, has built up an impressive résumé featuring some of the most compelling experimental pop and rock groups of the past decade. He’s also released an adventurous percussion-oriented electroacoustic album and developed an evolving solo show that reveals unique methods. Now a move from New York City to Los Angeles has signaled a new chapter in his career development, which currently includes membership in the psychedelic pop act Jerry Paper and former Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s touring band. MD recently spoke with the artist about his approaches and aesthetic.
MD: Your mother, Stefani Starin, and father, Dean Drummond, founded the contemporary classical group Newband, which performed original material as well as the works of composers like Harry Partch. Your dad was actually the director of the Harry Partch Ensemble at Montclair State University. Did you ever play in the Partch ensemble?
Booker: No, but my dad became the custodian of those instruments in 1990, when I was two, so I grew up around them and came to love them. They’re amazing instruments. At first I thought they were weird, and maybe I was a little embarrassed about what my parents did [laughs], but I came to think it was really cool, and I like Harry Partch’s music, as well as my dad’s. And I worked with the instruments with my dad—I’d pack them up, load them on a truck, and drive them to a gig in Boston or something. And I would occasionally go to the studio with my dad, and as I was becoming more of a serious musician he would give me an easier part to kind of check out, like a bass marimba part, for instance.
MD: You studied drums at SUNY Purchase.
Booker: Yes, I was in the conservatory of music there, in the jazz studies program, where I studied with Kenny Washington and John Riley. I learned a lot from my teachers studying that music, but I always had one foot out the door. I’d gotten into more experimental improv music and treating my drums—using contact mics, messing around with computers. I also took a class called Electroacoustic Music 2, which was taught by this really cool experimental composer, Du Yun, and another that was taught by one of the original sound-sculpture artists, Liz Phillips.
Around 2010, 2011, I started playing in two different bands, Cloud Becomes Your Hand and Landlady, and I was in a more performance-oriented, experimental music group called VaVatican. Around 2012 I started doing solo stuff, which was more in the vein of my improv electroacoustic compositional world.
MD: How was the music on your solo album, Dance And, conceived?
Booker: The album was composed in the spirit of it being a single piece of music. The first two tracks are introduction pieces, and from track three on it’s a seamless composition. The process for composing the music was a combination of bedroom trial-and-error, demoing ideas on a synthesizer, and messing around on my computer, in combination with my solo performances. I’ve always considered my solo set to be one piece that I’ve just been changing and adapting as I go. Introducing ideas, taking ideas out until it’s a new thing.
The recording was done in several spurts, and I worked closely in collaboration with producer and saxophonist Nathaniel Morgan, who was in VaVatican with me and was part of the improv music scene that I joined in Brooklyn. We did two sessions upstate and a session in Brooklyn.
MD: You’ve achieved a very seamless integration of percussion and electronics on Dance And. What were some of the approaches that you took?
Booker: We’d overlay ideas and do things like use the signal from a contact mic on a cymbal. Once I recorded something on bells and ended up not liking it and being frustrated with the time spent working on it, and Nathaniel said, “Let’s spend a little more time and run everything to a guitar amp with heavy distortion.” Another idea we went with was taking an electric guitar with an open tuning and putting it right next to the drums. We recorded the drums with mics but also grabbed the signal from the guitar, and the sympathetic resonance from the drums created a really cool drone. So that got mixed into it. Things like that, where the drums are creating this larger sound.
This was the type of thing that I was able to get into at Purchase, in the classes I took outside of the jazz program. No one’s really going to teach you all of this stuff, though. It’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to figure out on your own.
We also used a hell of a lot of plug-ins. I’m a big fan of heavily processed sounds, so we’d experiment with putting multiple limiters on the drums, things like that.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
For his live solo performances, Stardrum uses a Modern Drum Shop 7.5×14 snare, a mid-’60s Rogers Holiday 16″ floor tom and 20″ bass drum in gold sparkle wrap, and two Roland PD-8 Pads and a Yamaha Electronic Kick Tower Pad triggering a Nord Drum Virtual Analog Drum Synthesizer. He uses a 17″ Sabian HHX Legacy crash cymbal, West African go-go bells placed on top of the snare, and a cowbell and two Tibetan singing bowls placed on the floor tom. When he’s performing with other artists, Stardrum adds the Rogers Holiday set’s 13″ tom; his cymbals include a 20″ early-’60s A Zildjian ride, 14″ vintage A Zildjian hi-hats, and his 17″ Sabian HHX Legacy crash.
MD: What kind of treatments do you do live?
Booker: I put contact mics on my snare and floor tom, and I run them both through reverb, including a reverse reverb that I love. It interacts with what I’m doing and I can interact with it. I also use a Nord drum synth. It’s changed since, but my set used to begin with this rolling thing on a couple different sine waves tuned in fourths. The bass frequency was a fourth down and a quarter tone down from there.
MD: You reference “rough-cut edits” in the description section of one of your videos. Can you explain that?
Booker: That’s referring to the track “Sands Dream,” which has these really stark cuts. When we recorded that piece it was coming from an idea from the live set. I did sort of a long, five-minute or more, rolling pattern on a nipple gong. When I did it live, it was cool because I was able to respond to the acoustics of the space, but in the recording setting it didn’t work to have just one rolling nipple gong happening, so we recorded like five and overlaid them on top of each other.
Then, as I worked with it, I realized that something else had to be going on. That’s where the thing we did with the sympathetic vibrations of the guitar comes in. Elsewhere on the album, the drums are very muted, but on this part I had the drums open and ringing out, thus being able to get the vibrations from the guitar. What we wound up doing is having these really stark cuts between the nipple-gong part and this kind of thundering but calm drum-fill thing.
MD: In the piece “Looking And” the parts don’t line up perfectly rhythmically, but it’s somehow satisfying.
Booker: It’s interesting that you brought up the idea of syncopation versus sort of arrhythmic syncopation, because it’s a concept that I’m a little obsessed with right now—the elasticity of rhythm, and how to create really groovy music that’s not necessarily lined up and syncopated in a conventional sense. For “Looking And” we took this synthesizer melody that I composed and recorded it, sped it up, looped it, and used it as a kind of sequencer. Then we layered a bunch of synthesizers on top of it and had some droning happening, and I did this soloistic drum part. It’s probably the most drummy, bashing moment on the album.
MD: Let’s talk about some of the other projects you’ve been involved in, such as Natalie Mering’s Weyes Blood. How did you come to each other’s attention?
Booker: We met in Iowa City at a festival when I was on tour with the band Delicate Steve. She was on tour opening for Amen Dunes. She wasn’t actually on the festival, but we wound up partying and having a fun evening, and we realized that we both lived in New York and knew some mutual people. We kept in touch, and while she was recording her last album with Chris Cohen in L.A., I was also in L.A., checking out the city and playing music. And the first weekend I was there I got messages from both of them separately, like, “You want to play drums on this song ‘Do You Need My Love’?” Chris played drums on every other song. I had very little going on, because I’d just arrived in L.A. So we spent a day rehearsing the song and a day recording it.
MD: How come Chris didn’t play on it?
Booker: I think that Chris wasn’t hearing his own part for it, and maybe he was happy to have someone else come in and play drums on a track, because he had been playing drums and producing and recording the whole thing. He was playing other instruments too. I think they both were happy to have someone come in with some fresh ears. After she finished recording the album, we started touring in the fall of 2016.
“Drim Dram,” “Touching And” from Dance And
Cloud Becomes Your Hand
“Bridge of Ignorance Returns,” “Aye Aye” from Rest in Fleas
“Electric Abdomen,” “Nina,” “Rest in Place” from The World Is a Loud Place
“Do You Need My Love” from Front Row Seat to Earth
“Summer Running” from Premium
“Thump” (available on bandcamp)
MD: The band Landlady was interesting in that there were two drummers.
Booker: Yes, it was me and Ian Chang. We’d switch off between sitting drumset and a standing set with a percussion tree.
MD: Was there a game plan in terms of how that served the music?
Booker: Each song had a different approach, but usually the drumset was a foundational part and the standing kit was a complement to that. But a lot of the time we wrote interlocking parts that had the potential to sound like one monster eight-limbed drumset.
MD: With your solo music, do you see a time when that will turn into more of a band setting?
Booker: I want to continue having a solo project, for a number of reasons, but mostly because it’s easy. I can organize it myself, and it’s at a point where people ask me to do it, which is cool. I recently moved to L.A., and one of the things on my mind is to potentially start a band. It was something I wanted to do in New York. I did do a record-release show for Dance And as a four-person percussion ensemble, and we played the album from start to finish. It was sort of a drumset concerto.
MD: Who were the other players?
Booker: Sam Sowyrda, who plays malletKAT in Cloud Becomes Your Hand, and Max Jaffee [Elder Ones, Delicate Steve] and Austin Vaughn [Ashcan Orchestra, Here We Go Magic], two other brilliant drummers. But yeah, I’ve been hearing some sounds and ideas that might at a certain point require that there be more of a band.
MD: You’re currently touring with Lee Ranaldo. What are the most demanding or satisfying aspects of playing with him?
Booker: We’re playing the music from Lee’s new album, Electric Trim, which I don’t play on. I think like any gig playing someone else’s music, the interesting part for me is finding that sweet spot where I’m really playing like myself while at the same time serving the vision of the music, which belongs almost entirely to someone else.
Electric Trim is super-produced, but we’re playing it as a trio without a bass player and intentionally approaching the music way more stripped down. The challenge is playing subtly and tastefully, texturally and openly, but, given the limitations of the instrumentation, also taking up just the right amount of sonic space when necessary. Lee, after all, was in Sonic Youth, and there’s certainly a precedent for rocking out, so we have to leave room for that as well.
MD: Do you see a connection between the people you work with?
Booker: That’s a good question. All the projects stand alone in their own way, and they all exist in slightly different music communities. But I’d say that in general there is an open-mindedness in the community that I’ve found myself in and structured my life around. Something that I’ve always loved and appreciated in my musical life is diversity and doing lots of different things. But some taste of experimentation has got to be in there.