Story by Jeff Ryan
Photos by Erin Rambo
For ten years he plied his trade with the adventurous Texas rock band White Denim. Recently he’s dedicated his significant playing, engineering, and producing skills to the Grammy-nominated old-soul singer Leon Bridges.
Drummer bud Jeff Ryan of the band Pleasant Grove sat down with him to connect the dots between progressive with a small p and rhythm and blues with a big R&B.
It’s always exciting to have an in-depth conversation with a musician who’s taken the necessary time to hone his craft to the point that, when he sits down to create, the expression and the art seem merely an extension of his inner self. Josh Block, drummer, producer, engineer, and the creative force behind the new Niles City Sound studio, where the following interview went down, is one such musician.
Niles City, which sits inside a new venue named Shipping and Receiving in Fort Worth, Texas, is where Leon Bridges’ remarkably authentic-sounding soul collection Coming Home was recorded. Where everyone played together in one room, much like the musicians of yore did at legendary Sun and Muscle Shoals studios. Where success wasn’t measured by what was done in postproduction, but by the magic that happened during the performance. And a ton of magic happened on these sessions.
This unique and honest approach is symbolic of not only how Josh Block is as a musician but what he’s like as a person. Let’s learn more about this unique artist.
MD: You recently moved from Austin to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. What inspired the move?
Josh: I grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, and my wife and I lived in Austin for twelve years. Then we realized that we were big believers in Dallas’s free-culture environment. We’d spent an afternoon looking at French impressionists and having some amazing sushi, and we thought to ourselves, ”We love Dallas,” so we moved there in 2012. But then I was basically gone for almost two and a half years touring with White Denim. What [White Denim guitarist and Niles City partner] Austin Jenkins and I wanted to do wasn’t possible at the time, just because we were touring all the time. We [finally] built the studio about a year and a half ago.
MD: You caught something real and honest with Coming Home. The drum sound is amazing in its authenticity. What was your motivation in that respect?
Josh: Honesty. That was all of it. I want it to sound honest from where I’m sitting and from where the guy in front of me is sitting. And, really, a love of ride cymbals! [laughs] My offering as a drummer is being dedicated to ride cymbals. We used three mics, sometimes four. Luckily I engineered and mixed it, and we all played together on the floor, along with the lead and background vocals—just all of us in a room, playing music.
The first time I listened to the first record that I recorded and engineered, I was blown away by how it didn’t sound at all like what I was hearing in the room as we were playing. I didn’t hear a “real” sound. So with this record, when we were going to listen back, we wanted to hear it like we were sitting in front of the drums, and not have it sound processed.
MD: That definitely comes across. When I hear live recordings of Leon Bridges and then go back and listen to the album, I can’t tell the difference.
Josh: There were some songs on the record that were recorded on a broken tape machine and that we didn’t think were going to be the final takes. But we listened back after demoing other takes on a different machine, and thought those original takes were the best. I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve done more [production] to other records I’ve recorded, but I wouldn’t change a thing with this one. That’s why we built this studio—this is what you sound like, together, as a band. That’s why we play drums. We wanted to play with other players, and I wanted to capture that on record.
MD: Where do you start when you’re creating drum patterns?
Josh: I start first and foremost by listening. I focus on the guitar, which I know might not be the natural thing to do. But with Leon’s band the guitarist is the lead, and we follow him most of the time. I think of it almost like in Latin grooves, where you’re representing multiple instruments. Even if it’s a rock groove, I’ll kind of orchestrate it. You’re just sort of comping with the bass and the guitar, and then eventually those patterns happen, and they inform the section.
In White Denim we would do “part” writing—it’s just a natural thing that happened. The grooves were kind of removed from an overall theme. With Leon, we might be just playing a shuffle, but I spent so much time with White Denim that I can reach back to my part-writing skills and make these grooves my own.
MD: It’s funny you mention Latin, because when I was watching you play a shuffle during rehearsal, I was reminded of Latin music by the way you went to the tom a couple times, and how musical and integrated it felt. It seemed very natural and a great way to vary it up.
Josh: You have a lot of voices, and if you tune your toms right, then you can do it!
MD: Sometimes I find that the first idea that pops into my head is the best—it’s instinctive and natural. What are your thoughts on that?
Josh: Generally I end up where I started. It’s always easy to forget the first thing you came up with, because, more times than not, you end up so far from there, with ideas of orchestration. You try to build it out. But with the joys of recording and owning your own studio you can track it and then go back and listen back to the first takes and remember, ”Oh, yeah—that’s where we started.“ [laughs]
MD: You know when you nail it on the first or second take.
Josh: Oh, yeah, and because I mix a lot of music as well, I find myself looking at music in a three-dimensional way, where you’re listening to a song and you can think of it visually. It’s kind of like looking into a diorama—when you look into the hole in the box, that’s your vantage point. You have something kind of anchoring the objects in there, and it’s anchoring your field of vision. You know what’s closest and you know what’s furthest from you. I know it sounds really simple, but it’s really important to me, and to me it’s similar to when I’m building out a groove for a drumset part. Keeping that idea of a vantage point, you just build it around all these different layers. Like, the kick drum isn’t always the most important thing.
MD: You can subtract and add here and there, right?
Josh: Yeah, it doesn’t have to always line up with the bass. There’s a tune called “Outta Line” that we play with Leon, where my kick is lined up with the guitar, doing this Bo Diddley type of rhythm. I’m actually flipping the Bo Diddley groove around, and it sounds cool to keep the constant rhythm in my hands with the bass player, who’s just playing quarter notes, but throw my kick drum at the guitar player.
MD: That isn’t a typical “drummer” thing to do, but it’s your instinctual musical thing to do—that’s what you hear and see in your diorama.
Josh: Yeah, exactly! When I’m kind of looking at the landscape, the anchor is there. As far as pitch goes, he might be higher up in the register, but he sounds like the anchor to me, and I want people to feel that.
MD: It’s funny, when you mentioned the diorama aspect to finding and visualizing grooves, I thought you were going to say that you envision a kaleidoscope where everything’s floating around and you’re trying to grasp onto something—shows you how my mind works.
Josh: [laughs] Yeah, sometimes that happens too!
MD: How do you choose what drums to use in any given situation?
Josh: I’ve used all different types of kits. On White Denim albums I change drums all the time. I work closely with Bill and Jake Cardwell at C&C to create drums. Bill has a great mind for drums, but he’s not into drummers—he’s into music. He’s a wonderful conversationalist. You can talk to him for hours about songs and music in general. So I start with him and describe where I am within a song, the vibe I’m looking for, and he guides me through some different choices of drums that they can make.
Really it’s all about ergonomics with me. White Denim worked with Jeff Tweedy [Wilco] and I was using a 22″ kick in the studio, but ergonomically it just wasn’t working for me. Even if the drums are tuned correctly, where my body sits within the context of the drums, if it’s anything over a 20″ it feels strange to me.
I tracked the Leon Bridges album on a 12/14/18 [Gretsch] round-badge kit from the ’60s and switched out some C&Cs for the toms. Then I asked C&C to make me the 12/14/18 to emulate a round badge. Jake Cardwell said they had just made a maple/gum/maple kit that would be perfect for me, but they’d only made one, for Daniel Lanois. The next one was for me. It’s perfect; it does exactly what I want it to do.
MD: You mentioned ergonomics. We might not spend a lot of time when we’re starting out thinking about how we’re physically interacting with this instrument.
Josh: It goes back to when I was eighteen. [I saw] Jorge Rossy playing with Brad Mehldau, and his drums were tuned like a piano. It was musical. The only drumset I could get to sound like it was a CB700! It’s a living, breathing thing, you know? Just like when you work on your wrists, elbows, fingers, and then the fulcrum, then the sticks, heads, lugs, shells, etc., it’s all very natural. Like the ends of your sticks are where the drums start.
MD: How was playing with White Denim different for you physically and mentally from playing with Leon Bridges?
Josh: White Denim was very physically demanding because of the set lengths, but energy-wise they’re equivalent. Playing fewer notes can be just as mentally and physically challenging. Leon is pretty far behind the beat, and that’s also challenging, but I tend to let the bass player drive the bus.
MD: It’s hard for us as drummers to switch gears between different bands, but doing it well is something we should all strive for.
Josh: You’re right—we’re part of a bigger organism. If someone asks me to do traditional R&B or whatever, then I’ll do it, but luckily when I get hired they usually say, “Just do what you do and support the melody how you feel it’s proper to do so.”
MD: So, what’s next for you?
Josh: We’re trying to bring more local and national acts into Niles City. We want to do it with people who maybe can’t afford to spend $500 a day to record. That’s why we recorded Leon, because he didn’t have the type of money to make the record he wanted to—but he did have a bigger vision than he could afford. We just want to keep finding those guys.
Block’s Leon Bridges Setup
Drums: C&C custom maple/gum/maple with nickel-plated hardware and stick-saver hoops
• 6×14 brass snare with nickel-plated hardware (or 5.5×14 luan/poplar)
• 8×12 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 13×18 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
• 14″ 30th Anniversary hi-hats
• 20″ Traditional Flat ride
• 21″ Riveted Mel Lewis ride
• Alternates: 12″ 30th Anniversary hi-hats, 20″ and 22.5″ Epoch rides
Mics: AEA, including N22 on snare, R92 on bass drum, and R84s on hi-hats and as overheads
Hardware: Canopus lightweight models
Sticks: Innovative Percussion Ed Soph ES2 model, Innovative Percussion mallets, Brush Fire brushes
Heads: Remo, including Coated Vintage Ambassador snare batter and Coated Diplomat bottom, and Vintage Ambassador bass drum batter and Nuskyn front head
Accessories: Humes and Berg cases, Ultimate Ears Pro in-ear monitors
Preamp/EQs: AEA RPQ500 on snare and bass drum and for overheads, TRPs on toms. Short cable runs used with amps/EQs residing on stage near the drumkit.