It’s not that the veteran San Francisco–based drummer Scott Amendola has a full calendar, it’s the kind of busy he is.
Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Lenny Gonzalez
Some drummers do the hired-gun thing admirably, but Amendola is fortunate to be in several projects as a respected creative voice, an equal collaborator whose formidable jazz, funk, and rock drumming is a key component. Add to that his developed compositional skills, and you get Fade to Orange, his new commissioned orchestral work.
“I wrote a lot of music for it, about forty pages,” the New Jersey–born drummer tells MD from his home in the Bay Area. “But there are things I’ve never done, like the minimalist aspect. It’s not at all drum focused, except for one middle part. My first rule writing for the orchestra was: Don’t throw the kitchen sink at it. I wanted to write something musically true to who I was.”
But what does musically true mean when the bands you’re in are so vastly different? Two decades ago, Amendola achieved notoriety in groups with seven-string guitar magician Charlie Hunter. One of those, the sadly defunct T.J. Kirk, did killer jazz-funk covers of Thelonious Monk, James Brown, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk tunes and featured enough slick Amendola grooves and tasty licks for drummers and other artists to take notice.
Since then, Scott has appeared in projects ranging from avant-garde trios with clarinetist Ben Goldberg and guitarist John Dieterich to playing with an orchestra in front of thousands in South America in vocalist Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane. Then there’s the duo work with Hunter, or organist Wil Blades, or guitarist Henry Kaiser, where Amendola uses all that space and freedom beautifully, bringing everything from a mannered pocket to cymbal grazing you can barely hear. Oh, yeah, he also leads his own jazz-inflected bands.
Amendola’s highest-profile gig, however, is his longtime partnership with Wilco’s lead guitarist, in the Nels Cline Singers. It’s a playfully deceiving name, since it’s less a choir of voices than a green-light amalgam of textural rock, instrumental epics, and Amendola’s other identity—electronics wizard.
Most would need a nap at this point, but Amendola’s commitment and energy aren’t to be denied.
MD: Between Nels Cline, Charlie Hunter, Wil Blades, sideman work, and of course your own groups, how do you juggle all these relationships?
Scott: At the end of every year I look back and think, Well, that’s how that year went. I don’t have just one name gig. My relationships with Charlie and Nels are over twenty years old, and [I’ve worked with] Wil Blades for ten years. Charlie and I have been doing a lot of duo stuff over the past few years, so that becomes a priority, because Nels is in this huge rock band, but when they’re dormant, the Singers will start working. Charlie and I played together for so long and then didn’t do anything for a while, but the relationship has been very important to us.
I don’t want to be on the road for eight months anymore—and you just hope that you don’t have to be. But I love touring and playing with these creative people. It would be nice if it was easier, but it’s never going to be easy when you’re not playing music that appeals to millions of people. [laughs] But then I’ll play with Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane to huge audiences in South America.
MD: Do you turn down lots of gigs?
Scott: I’ve turned down gigs if I didn’t think I’d enjoy them night after night. And I’ve never regretted it, because maybe that wouldn’t have lasted and I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to do these other things. All the people I play with really push me and inspire me.
MD: From a purely economic standpoint, duos must be nice, with fewer people to pay.
Scott: That’s very true. It makes a lot of sense, especially today. But if it wasn’t fulfilling musically, we wouldn’t do it.
MD: You groove, swing, rock, and play free, but you have a uniformity of sound in your recordings. Are you using the same gear or switching stuff out?
Scott: That’s interesting, because there was a time when I did a lot of gear switching. I needed to use certain things for certain bands, and I still do that, but it’s becoming more refined. I used an 18″ bass drum for so long, and I was on a bit of a mission with it, but lately I’ve been favoring a 20″.
I also want to be able to translate a sound in different situations. There’s a psychological element of tuning your drums higher because you’re playing a “jazz” gig, or bringing a bigger kit because you’re playing more R&B and soul and shuffles. But with the Nels Cline Singers, Nels is a force. He sets up right next to me super-tight and wants to be practically in the drums. I had been using bigger cymbals but decided one time to bring in the [smaller] cymbals I was using in other situations. And I played a certain way, which affected the entire band in a positive way. It brought the upper dynamic down and gave more room for lower dynamics. I’d been using 15″ hats, and one day I switched to these 14″ hats and Nels really noticed. There was more definition. It was getting back to something I’d let go of a little—texture and sound. It made me think more about the kit and my voice.
I’ve also been using this Craviotto 5.5″ copper/brass snare. I’d never used a metal drum as my main snare. With snares, it’s a bit of a phase thing, but right now I’m just hearing this metal drum.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my sound. And when I’m on the road and don’t get to play my drums, I know what I have to do to get that.
MD: Regarding your duo recordings with Charlie Hunter, Not Getting Behind Is the New Getting Ahead is Charlie’s music, Pucker is your music, and you’ve done EPs covering the music of the Cars, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Hank Williams. Was there a different approach to handling each session?
Scott: Yeah, we’re coming from different places when we’re writing. But when I was writing for Pucker, I was thinking about Charlie and what our thing is. I want him to be himself. We’d rehearse and arrange and play gigs and talk about things and see how they felt. For my stuff I had specific ideas, but he was also totally open to my suggestions when we were working on his songs. That covers project was his thing. He had ideas for which tunes he wanted to do. But we would also drive around listening to rock music, so he wanted to do the Cars too. We worked on it and it really translated.
MD: So you’re not getting eye rolls for being a drummer who composes?
Scott: Charlie is collaborative and very supportive. When you’re presenting something you’ve written, you’re really exposing yourself. When you’re in a supportive environment and everyone is really there and tying to make something happen, it’s great. And hopefully they’re not trying too hard. [laughs] I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with that with other people. If someone is not hearing anything and has a bad attitude, instead of trying to make something of it, in my opinion it’s just someone I don’t want to be working with.
You get asked, “You’re a drummer…how do you write music? You just write beats”? And it’s like, I play music—why can’t I write music? Just because I don’t play the guitar or piano in front of you, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a relationship with it. We have this idea about music schools and you need to know this or that. And man, you just have to figure out how to be yourself and what your relationship is to the art.
MD: Do you ever write anything for Charlie and forget that he has only two hands?
Scott: It’s funny, there’s a song “Rubbed Out” on Pucker that’s tricky. It has this bass line and this guitar line, and it has this one three-bar phrase against a four-bar phrase, and I know he can do it—but is he going to want to? He learned it and told me it’s his favorite song. He’s a total phenom and he loves rhythm and harmony, and he’s going to figure it out. I’m in awe every night. He’s doing something technically brilliant and making incredible music out of it.
MD: For your trio project with Ben Goldberg and John Dieterich, how do you mentally approach playing without the traditional bottom end that a bass provides?
Scott: I’ve done a lot of gigs without bass. One of my favorite groups is the Paul Motian/Bill Frisell/Joe Lovano trio, and that’s kind of all I need. And I love bass. I own a bass. I love playing bass.
When there’s no bass, I’m trying to hear what my role can be. Am I holding it down rhythmically? Or playing free? Or does it go between the two? It’s not like, “What’s missing”? It’s more like, “What’s here”? I like the idea of space and a lack of low end. And what plays the role? My bass drum? My ride? It could be the clarinet or the low string of the guitar. Everybody has to commit to it.
MD: You’re in so many groups that improvise. How do you deal when something’s not happening musically?
Scott: You have to ask, “What can we change”? I’m all about trying stuff. Any idea that anybody has. If we’re on stage improvising and it’s not happening, you can’t just stop. You have to ask, “What can I grab on to”? In rehearsal, sometimes it’s about simply saying, “This is not working. This sucks.” [laughs] It’s like the elephant in the room. But sometimes it’s perception. I’ll walk off the stage and think something sucked, but someone else thought it was amazing. And nothing is really finished. Nels made a new arrangement of a song we’d been playing for years, and it was a great idea. It changed it. There were certain aspects I was going to miss, but this was a new direction for it. So just embrace it and make it happen.
MD: The Nels Cline Singers might be where your voice shines the strongest. Talk about your approach in that group, with your use of electronics and coming up with parts.
Scott: The leader, Nels, is a bottomless pit of creativity. He wanted the band to evolve and take time getting to certain places that he knew we would get to. There are aspects of my drumming, and this electronic thing I do, that he wanted in this band and that he was going to write for. He’s described the Singers as a cross between Paul Bley and Sonic Youth. Everything I love about music is in that band. Even things I didn’t know I loved were pulled out of me. I love the way we can go from complete noise with my electronics into a groove or into a super-subtle ballad, or I can play colors or sonic textures. It’s as exciting to me as anything.
It took a long time to figure out what I wanted to say with the electronics. Early on Nels was excited about it, so that sent me deep into exploring it. I wanted it to be a musical extension of the drums, to be a part of me. There are so many technical aspects to what I’m doing, and figuring out how it affects the band musically, but also the onstage sound with things that are happening that maybe shouldn’t be, like feedback, and people getting frustrated. [laughs] Or it’s too loud.
[Tortoise guitarist] Jeff Parker played with me in a band called Crater. And he told me the electronics were cool but that I had them coming from all these monitors all over the stage. He said his amp is where his sound comes from, and my drums are where my sound should come from. It was about my sound coming from where I was, so it wouldn’t take over the whole situation. He was right. So what I needed was a speaker next to me that I could control that everybody was hearing from there. And if someone wanted it in their monitor, like drums, then they could have that.
I’m essentially dealing with guitar pedals, and there’s a certain amount of chance. Certain combinations of things yield surprises, and I like that. I don’t set up loops beforehand. It’s all about improvising. And I don’t need to use the electronics. With Charlie Hunter, I don’t hear it as part of our sound.
MD: What about your own bands? You’ve got trios and quintets and violins—you can really go anywhere with it.
Scott: This duo with Wil Blades is some-
thing I’m going to do more with. Not just a live record but maybe a studio album as well. But for my own bands, one obstacle I’m up against nowadays is being able to afford to record a quintet. I don’t have a record deal, and I don’t think I’d want one. But hopefully I can make a record and sell enough to be able to make another record, to fill up the recording fund.
MD: The Fade to Orange press release described it as the Singers meet the symphony. What were the challenges of writing for a large orchestra of non-jazzers?
Scott: When it was commissioned, there were certain things I wanted to do with the piece originally, like having the orchestra improvise, but the music was going in a different direction. It was to be about twenty minutes, and I’ve never had rules like that. Knowing I was working with Nels and [bassist] Trevor Dunn, I wanted us to be featured with an orchestra. But sometimes I’ll agonize over notes, because I just want it to be right. The music itself isn’t that hard. There’s vibe and a lot of repetitive things in that piece, a lot of cyclical motion. But for the orchestra, you don’t have to write chords, just voicings.
MD: What was the genesis of your project with Henry Kaiser?
Scott: Henry is a sweetheart and a great guitar player. He told me to offer [fans] that he and I would make an improv CD, and if enough people were interested in buying it, we would do it. I asked him what he needed, but he said not to worry about him. He was so generous. He came over with his computer and one microphone. It was an accidental record. It was just going to be an hour of improvising and handwritten CD-Rs to give out to people. But then Henry had some other ideas he wanted to add, and he asked me to put a few other things on afterwards, so that it could be an actual record. It was really fun. And then we did a house concert that was a blast.
MD: Do you get to practice? What are you working on?
Scott: Often when I practice, it’ll be around a project I’m working on, and I’ll relate my practicing to that. It’s applied practicing, in a sense. But I do have students, and one of them brought over the Wilcoxon book [Modern Rudimental Swing Solos], which I’ve never gone through. And I try to work on the N.A.R.D. snare drum book [America’s N.A.R.D. Drum Solos] or the Joe Morello book [Master Studies]. Sometimes some basic hand or foot exercises. But there’s never a feeling of I don’t need to practice. I really want to practice more. Plus I have to mess around with all these pedals and electronics. I have to practice that too.
MD: What do you teach your students?
Scott: I really like teaching. Technique is really important. A lot of people that come to see me don’t have a concept of technique, and one day I’d like to write a book or some kind of informational guide with my philosophy about playing and improvising. But there are so many ways to play drums, and sometimes drummers get caught up in the idea that there’s only one way to do it, or that they can’t create their way to do it. We can all benefit from books and rudiments, but it’s also about physically looking at your hands and thinking about how your body feels at the drums and learning how your fingers and wrists work, how high you’re sitting…. All those things are important and specific to each person. We all play differently.
MD: How has technology changed things in the landscape of gigging, performing, practicing, and distributing your work?
Scott: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I came up at a time when I was able to establish myself. Record labels used to help us get our music and us out there. It was a symbiotic relationship. It’s harder for younger musicians, and there are a lot more musicians today and a lot fewer gigs.
For me, the Internet’s great, because you can reach people all over the world, record music inexpensively, own your music, and still tour. Young musicians need to know that you can still go out there and build an audience. If you have to have a job, you can still make music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Whatever it means to you, whether it’s writing your own music or being in a wedding band, just try to follow that path and figure out how to make it work.
The value of music has changed so much. We’re in this weird transition with the sale of music, and now with streaming music. But you can’t replace the experience of hearing people live. I love performing and can’t imagine not doing it. And I’ve turned down gigs that would take me away from my family for too long. But all I really want is to make a decent living. I don’t need to be Charlie Watts. The people I play with are doing okay. Music has done only good things in my life. It’s been a positive force, and I’m grateful that I can play music and write music.