MD contributor Lia Braswell catches up with her old friend, who recently toured with the much-admired folk-rock act Weyes Blood.
Weyes Blood, the alias of singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Natalie Mering, has been soaring through the music scene with her captivating music for the past few years. Mering’s most recent album, Titanic Rising, is brimming with finely realized arrangements that are brought to life by a solid live band, including Jay Rudolph, who joined her earlier this year on a run of dates in Australia and New Zealand.
Rudolph has seemingly spent most of his waking hours exploring his craft since he was a young and restless kid, which is when I met him. We goofed off together in middle school, being the only two drummers in our English class who knew what paradiddles were. Now, as a pro, Rudolph has replaced all those hours playing for fun with friends in the Valley with extensive touring behind multiple artists, including Nick Waterhouse, Rayland Baxter, and Weyes Blood.
In between those phases of his life, Rudolph studied jazz drums at the New School in New York, where he graduated in 2013. While there he expanded on his improvisation skills, an ability that ironically presented him with a challenge on a project where “everything has an intention, and everything has a melodic purpose,” as he was told early on by Mering. “You can develop all the technique and shreddy qualities that you want,” says Rudolph, “but it really doesn’t matter unless you know where to put it.”
After college, Jay spent many tours “sleeping on couches with a lot of cat hair on it, or on the floor, making no money but sort of doing it because you’re pretending to be a rock star.” Nonetheless, the struggle prepared him to remain persistent with the main objective. “I think that so many bands, or people who are trying to start out, are just like, ‘Let’s just tour, tour, tour,’ and you waste all of this money playing to nobody. I’m not sure I know of a much better alternative, though, because I think you have to do that at some point. Playing shows every night and really being able to dial it in with a band prepared me to find my place in the music and be forced to focus on it. But honestly, the main thing that it warmed me up for is the social dynamics of being on tour.”
The sacrifice of personal space and comfort is what makes touring more strenuous than novices may assume. One way to avoid conflict, suggests Rudolph, is by observing each experience as a lesson in setting boundaries and being considerate of bandmates and crew members. “It’s a vulnerable place,” he observes. “You have to be super conscious of where everyone else is at. It’s about learning how to ask for what you want, [but also] when to say what you’re feeling and when not to say it. It’s about timing and navigating people’s motions. You have to be smart about it.”
Another thing Rudolph recognizes is the energy that it takes to maintain stamina. Anything you consume can have either a positive or negative effect. Those who’ve been doing it for long enough know that it’s an exhausting lifestyle. “I really admire anyone who’s getting sober in their twenties or later,’ he says. “Maybe this was just a part of growing up, but it took me a long time to get comfortable. Especially since all of our work is playing at bars and venues, or going out to bars and venues, schmoozing or supporting. It took a long time to feel comfortable as a sober person without the vice of having something to loosen up a little.
“I’ve gotten used to being who I am without it,” Rudolph continues. “Making a choice to go and do that feels like adding an unnecessary stress into my life. I just want to be able to hang out and have everything feel normal, not feel like anyone’s trying to cater to my sobriety. So I feel self-conscious about bringing it up, because by bringing it up it sounds like it’s an issue, but it’s really not. I don’t mind being around it at all. I do talk about it openly, though. It’s a part of who I am.”
Jay has found that moving back to Los Angeles motivated him to reconnect with his close friends while taking a dive into new environments to meet influential artists. “The most important thing I did, if I did anything right when I came out here, was that I went to shows almost every night. I was really making an effort not to stick with my little clique of friends. I made an effort to introduce myself to everyone who I was checking out and who I admire.”
That attitude is exactly what led Rudolph to work with one of Mering’s collaborators, Chris Cohen [January 2018 MD]. “Chris is one of the most inspiring musicians around today,” says Rudolph. “He’s a really talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He just nails the classic ’60s, Ringo style. He produced [Weyes Blood’s 2016 LP] Front Row Seat to Earth in his basement, and when I made a record with him producing, he would be listening to the bass drum parts and be like, ‘Why is that one little extra beat in there?’ We would whittle it down, and I would see it once we got to the end of it and think, ‘Oh, wow. That makes perfect sense. He just heard it before I did.’ It’s a sign of a good producer.”
Along with his touring projects, Rudolph is the drummer for the ethereal art-pop band Midnight Sister. The multitalented band members get together when they aren’t busy with other projects to create an indestructible creative bond built on mutual trust. “It’s been nice that everyone can come back to it and make something really beautiful together,” says Rudolph, “because they’re all really old friends of mine who I admire creatively.” Jay’s perseverance has led him to where he has always been—home, where the music flows.
Rudolph currently plays a 6.5×14 ’70s Pearl Jupiter COB snare, a 21″ Istanbul Agop Mel Lewis ride, a 20″ Xist crash, and an 18″ OM crash. “I love Istanbul Agop cymbals,” he says. “They have such a fantastic range, and they’re the most consistent out of any factory-made cymbals I’ve heard.” For hi-hats he uses 15″ K Zildjians from the ’50s. “I shouldn’t be taking them out on the road,” he muses, “but I can’t help it because they sound so good.”