Enjoying a long run at New York’s Public Theater, the rock opera Joan of Arc: Into the Fire features a striking young actress/vocalist adorned in chain mail, sixteen male dancer/singers, and a rock band that pumps out David Byrne’s original score like it’s the last performance on planet earth. At the center of this tribal sound festooned with triumphal vocals and blistering guitars is the potent drumming of Yuval Lion.
Joan of Arc is both a test of endurance and a showcase for the Israel native’s atmospheric, laid-back, and highly stylized drumming. The rock opera demands that Lion pound out military marches, create pulsating patterns akin to Jim Keltner drumming for a death march, and play both full-on loud and triple-piano soft, all while reading nine-page charts and following a conductor on a pair of small monitors. Positioned in a tiny “treehouse” booth ten feet above the stage and out of sight to cast, crew, and audience, Lion plays Joan of Arc like a solitary man drumming his way through centuries of history and musical soul.
Lion arrived in New York City in 1998, and was soon drumming on small stages and in smaller studios. He’s played with bands known and unknown, from sessions with Chrissie Hynde and Lionel Loueke to work with a series of New York rockers that includes Pink Noise (2002–2012), Meshell Ndegeocello (2008), Lionz (with Lionel Loueke, 2011–2012), Wave Sleep Wave (2012–2014), Martha Wainwright (2012–2016), and Suzanne Vega (2016). The artists he regularly continues to play with include Cibo Matto, Jim Keller, and Trixie Whitley.
Besides Joan of Arc, Lion is currently most involved with the New York City institution Big Lazy, a spacey guitar trio that allows him to fully explore his behind-the-beat, deeply atmospheric, and spacious groove. Lion never plays two songs alike, but once he’s planted his concept on the material, it can never withstand a different interpretation. Lion’s beats are integral to each song he records, whether he’s syncopating a pattern, using odd source material, or simply turning the unexpected into the perfect part, track after track.
Currently finishing Big Lazy’s latest release and another by the twelve-piece horn band Zion80 (an album of John Zorn music), Lion brings slow-motion funk and eclectic soul to New York’s frantic city streets.
MD: Does the Joan of Arc show allow you to play your very syncopated and atmospheric style?
Yuval: It’s a rock-oriented show [telling] the historic story of Joan of Arc. Each song is different. Some songs have breakdowns; it’s more of a theatrical approach. The songs start one way and end a different way. There can be an insert within a song to serve the story. I’m lucky to have been there from the beginning, working from the demos and playing the music. That’s how I created my parts, with direction and by listening to the demos and constantly changing and looking for sounds.
MD: Did you augment your kit specifically for Joan of Arc?
Yuval: I play a four-piece vintage Ludwig kit. Hi-hat and a couple cymbals. For Joan of Arc I added Roland SPD-S pads with Ableton Live. I program in Ableton; the pads are a MIDI controller. I use different sounds I’ve collected and created over the years. Some sounds are from the software, and I manipulate them with effects.
MD: Are the sounds acoustic or more esoteric and electronic?
Yuval: Electronic sounds. One song is entirely electronic drums, then it becomes acoustic. It’s tricky. The sounds keep evolving and changing. For this show I use open toms—no bottom heads.
MD: The drums are heavily taped. Why?
Yuval: I went for a specific sound during rehearsals. Removing the bottom tom heads created more punch and low end, which fits the music and the vibe of the show. There are a lot of tom-oriented parts, very primal/tribal style. The drums are quite dead as far as the overtones, yet very warm and powerful sounding. This is where the tape comes in. And the drums are tuned very low, so the heads are a bit floppy and wavy. The tape also keeps the heads from buzzing when they are tuned that low. The snare drum is also tuned low and taped down. I use another snare that’s tuned higher and has a bit of a ring to it as a contrast to the main snare drum.
MD: Your drums in the booth are very isolated from the band and the actors. How did you make that work? What are the challenges of being that isolated?
Yuval: You might think being isolated would affect the band’s feeling while playing together, but you adapt and get used to that. The biggest challenge is to make sure the energy of a live show gets through. It’s important to have a good headphone mix to make sure the balance is good so nothing gets in the way of the performance. Usually in a live show or in the studio you can see or feel the audience or artist and interact with the band. When you’re in a booth with no direct sight lines or sense of an audience, it can change the way you might feel the music, but luckily it doesn’t [necessarily]. It might even make you listen harder, because it’s all about what you hear, as there isn’t really anything to look at while playing in that drum booth!
MD: How did you get the Joan of Arc gig?
Yuval: The person who assembled the band in the first workshop was a friend of mine, Daniel Mintseris. He’s the keyboard player in St. Vincent’s band. I got the call and was lucky to play the early workshops, where they work out and format the show.
MD: How did growing up in Israel influence your drumming?
Yuval: Israel is a special place, because there isn’t really an Israeli style. It’s a mishmash of styles from different countries. There are musicians from North Africa, the Gulf countries, Europe…a melting pot of cultures. It’s the same with food. What’s Israeli food? Eastern European food mixed with Egyptian food.
MD: But aren’t there specific Israeli rhythms, like the hora?
Yuval: Yes, but the base of the hora is klezmer, like a Polish two-beat. A polka played on a Middle Eastern drum gives it an interesting rhythm, sound, and flavor.
MD: Did you play those rhythms growing up?
Yuval: I was mainly into the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and the Who—’70s rock—then new wave and the Cure. David Bowie. And I listened to Israeli pop: Gidi Gov, Meir Banai. I played along to the radio. I also liked the Israeli musicians who played on Israeli pop sessions. Then I got into jazz: Pat Metheny and Jack DeJohnette.
MD: When did you first play the drums?
Yuval: I was always banging. My first drum lesson was when I was nine. I am a lefty, but my first teacher taught me as a right-handed drummer. My second teacher, when I was twelve, was Arale Kaminsky. He played with Manhattan Transfer. He’s a major drummer in Israel; he brought Brazilian music to Israel. He asked me to clap my hands and knew instantly that I was a lefty. He noted the leading hand in the two hands clapping. Our lessons were divided into three parts: rudiments, sight-reading, and we would learn a rock beat or a waltz. Then finally we got into jazz and swing. I was excited about that. I also studied with David Rich, who had moved to Israel from the U.S. in the 1960s. He was a student of Joe Morello and taught his concept.
MD: Did you attend music school?
Yuval: Yes, I got a scholarship to Berklee in 1997. I had played in a youth big band in Israel, then I joined the army and was fortunate enough to play in the air force orchestra, a sixteen-piece pop big band. That was real music school. That turned me into a professional. I started practicing a lot; every day I had a rehearsal in the morning, then I played a show. That gave me stage and reading experience. Even before then I’d played and recorded in bands in Israel, on TV shows. The army really made me better. I worked solid throughout Israel for three years before I moved to the States.
MD: So why come to the States if you were so busy in Israel?
Yuval: My teacher David Rich helped me get a scholarship. I sent a tape including a blues, standards, improvisation, and funk. I studied at Berklee with Kenwood Dennard, Rick Considine, Casey Scheuerell. It was tough to return to school after playing professionally in Israel. Nobody cared who you were there. I rebuilt my education, studied harmony and arranging. After a year I moved to New York, where I played with Milo Z and on the Bleecker Street circuit. My goal was to make it as part of a band, staying creative and working on originality. Pretty soon through networking I started playing gigs.
Working, Networking, Plying Producers…
MD: How did studio work develop for you?
Yuval: It’s word of mouth. I recorded a Chrissie Hynde record that never came out, and a record with Lionel Loueke that wasn’t released. The producer who had mixed a record by my band Pink Noise called me for the Hynde sessions. I had a lot of experience in the studio from playing with bands and making records around New York after I arrived. Not major-league records, but a lot of studio work. When you work with a band and create your own parts and have the luxury of recording and listening and trying things, that process is a great way to hone your studio chops.
MD: How did you get called for the Suzanne Vega record?
Yuval: The producer, Gerry Leonard [David Bowie, Duncan Sheik], had worked Bowie’s last tour. He called me. I was recommended by a bass player from Jim Keller’s band, Byron Isaacs; he’s with the Lumineers now. Jerry liked my drumming in my band Big Lazy and wanted that sound. He wanted a rock drummer with jazz sensitivities who grooved hard and sounded dirty. It had to be pocket and funky and solid. We tracked live.
Big Lazy is an instrumental guitar trio. We’re working on a new album. We just played our twentieth-anniversary show. It’s another sonic adventure. It addresses my concept, which is to find this one beat that will work for the song. It’s about distilling the drum part to this core that works for the song.
MD: How do you create these very individual, atmospheric grooves?
Yuval: There’s not a lot of planning involved. By playing a lot of original music with bands, you [learn to] distill the drum part to what works for the song. When I’m in sessions or with different artists, I borrow from prior work; I might go to a Big Lazy track that was similar. I have a bag of tools that I know works. It’s from playing music that is not straightforward, that’s not pop or mainstream. I always look for the angle, and when you do that for a long time it gets in your gut—it becomes your first instinct. For instance, I could play a pattern on the hi-hat, but what if I play it on the tom rim, or what if I don’t play the hi-hat at all? I could play 2 and 4 and occasionally ride the snare drum, for instance.
MD: Do musicians and producers come to you now for your style?
Yuval: I hope so. I want people to call me for my style and my sound. I’m not trying to be different, but I am trying to push it to the left as much as possible without making it crazy or not musical. A song has a vibe; I usually follow the vocals, which have a vibe. That’s how I create the sonic landscape in my mind for that song with the drums. I don’t like high, trebley sounds; my cymbals are dark and my drums are tuned pretty low. If it’s a high sound [that’s needed], I will play rims or use a shaker.
MD: You don’t play hi-hat often?
Yuval: I do, but my balance for hi-hat is low in the mix. If you want a fat backbeat, stay low on the hi-hat. That works for me. As I said, I usually go for lower drum sounds; I like the fatness. Also, I don’t like smaller drums. And I might play with a brush in one hand and a stick in the other. I put stuff on the drums, I throw keys on the hi-hat—I like to experiment. I might cut the rim away from a drumhead and put [what’s left of the head] on the snare drum, which lowers the tone. And I’ll throw a Roots EQ mute on the head. They are precut to the size of the head. It gets that ’70s sound. Sometimes I hit the snare drum in different spots, either way back or closer in. I once heard Jim Keltner say, “I tune a drum so it makes me want to play it.” I believe a lot of the sound comes from your feel, the way you hit the drum, how much energy you put into the strike.
MD: When creating parts in the studio, is it more a thought process or intuition?
Yuval: Always intuition, then trial and error, and a lot of listening while playing. I try to play as if I am away from the kit, to hear what’s going on. What’s happening in the room with the sound, with the music? But the key is listening and reacting to what’s happening around you. Not reacting like in jazz, but reacting sonically. You want to hear the whole [production] as you’re doing it.
MD: Do you get involved in production?
Yuval: Oh, yeah, I work a lot at Vibromonk studio in Williamsburg, where they know my sound. I might change the snare drum or suggest a sound for the bass guitar. When you work in a band in session, you have to know when to step in and when to step back. Then you venture out as a freelancer, but you have all that experience of trying to do something the best you can and being creative. I was always in a few bands, in different styles. One band feeds another.
MD: How do you think about space in the beat, placement, and creating a wide beat?
Yuval: I go for the widest sound possible and for the pocket to be as wide as possible. I always play behind the beat. It’s not something I’ve worked on. When I started playing with a metronome I realized I was behind the beat. It’s a challenge for me to play on top. I can do it, but it’s not natural for me. In Joan of Arc there’s a click, and sometimes they want to push sections. Sometimes the click speeds up and you have to be with it. I love the click. The danger in playing behind the beat is you don’t want to drag. There’s a fine line between dragging the song and playing behind the beat.
MD: Do people come to you for the behind-the-beat, relaxed sound?
Yuval: I don’t know. It’s my sound, I guess—behind the beat. I always go for a direct sound. Nothing too pristine, snare drum typically a little dirty. Sometimes that’s what’s called for. You’ll play a ringy drum or a totally dead drum in a certain way, which is why I go with this sound in Joan of Arc. I didn’t want it to be show drums or Broadway drums. You expect a certain sound on Broadway, but that’s why I went for this different sound—that’s what I hear.
MD: What are you currently practicing?
Yuval: I practice in the treehouse booth at the Public Theater. I warm up with singles and doubles, different combinations. I have a drum studio in Brooklyn where I work on things I have to nail down, like a specific part for a song, or I just play. I might program something and play along. Come up with ideas. I practice playing slow with a click. Play a slow backbeat for a while. If you’re honest with yourself, you will practice things you need to work on. I worked on 6/8 African rhythms for a year.
MD: You came to New York City in 1998. What advice do you give to drummers who want to follow in your footsteps?
Yuval: Create your own voice. Find places where you can do that. For me it was in a band context. If people see you play on YouTube, make sure that is something you want them to see. If you’re not playing well or if you don’t like the music, why bother? If you play out, play something meaningful. Find a way to do that. It’s not easy anywhere, much less in New York, where the cost of living is so high and the competition is fierce. But if you play out with a band or a vocalist, make sure it’s really something you want to do and that will lead to something else. And if it’s a gig that’s great and makes you sound great, you will be happier doing it. And even if you play for free, play for the music.
Big Lazy Don’t Cross Myrtle /// Suzanne Vega Lover, Beloved /// Pink Noise Here Is Happiness, What Will Happen If Someone Finds Out? /// Jim Keller Heaven Can Wait /// Lionz (with Lionel Loueke and Ben Zwerin) Lionz /// Wave Sleep Wave Never Notice
Drums: 1970 Ludwig
A. 5×14 Acrolite snare (or 5×14 Supraphonic snare)
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 14×20 bass drum
Cymbals: Istanbul Agop
1. 14″ Signature hi-hats (or 17″ hi-hats consisting of two Xist crashes)
2. 20″ OM crash
3. 21″ Traditional Original ride
4. 22″ Signature ride
Sticks: Innovative Percussion Hybrid sticks, WBR-1X wire brushes, and Phat Broomz
Heads: Remo, including Coated Ambassador snare batters and Hazy Ambassador resonants, Coated Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador resonants, and Coated Emperor bass drum batter and Coated Ambassador front head (no hole, with felt strips on both sides)
Electronics: Roland SPD-S sampling pad, KT-9 kick drum pedal, and PD-8 pad (shown in Joan of Arc setup shot); Ableton Live
Accessories: Roots EQ drum mutes
The main shot here is Lion’s go-to kit for studio and live gigs. The inset shot is his Joan of Arc setup, which swaps out his 22″ Signature ride with a 22″ Xist crash and a 20″ OM crash, and the 21″ Traditional Original ride for a 20″ Alchemy Professional crash and a 17″ Xist crash. Yuval also added a 6″ Turk mini bell on top of a 12″ mini China (“an old, beat-up, and cracked no-brand model”). Also unique to the set are a Remo pandeiro, an aluminum Turkish doumbek, and a circa-’70s 5×14 Ludwig Acrolite auxiliary snare drum. The main snare is a 6.5×14 Ludwig Supraphonic from the ’90s.
Feel and Diversity
David Byrne Answers 5 Questions About Drumming
MD: Do you recall a time in your early musical development when you became conscious of how much of an effect a drummer can have on a track?
David: Ha, ha—I’m old enough that my references are James Brown, Ginger Baker, and Keith Moon…the latter two probably because their playing drew attention to itself.
MD: What are the first things you take note
of when you consider working with a particular drummer?
David: Feel—which is pretty hard to quantify—and diversity, as my writing often incorporates and references a range of styles. Economy too. Sometimes less really is more.
MD: What aspects of Yuval Lion’s playing allow him to either translate your rhythmic or sonic ideas effectively or create unique parts that complement your music well?
David: Playing for a show like this is really a special beast. Sometimes the band is playing straight-up songs and grooves, but sometimes the playing is really at the service of storytelling. Builds and pauses are often about narrative clarity as much as music. Yuval gets this, and he manages to make what are sometimes fairly unmusical segues sound natural!
MD: What sort of rhythmic and percussive elements are prominent in Joan of Arc, and how actively do they push forward the action on stage?
David: Pretty straightforward so far—drums, acoustic and electronic, and some hand drums and shaker. Occasionally there are effects, which are borderline percussive—explosions and such—that Yuval has to
MD: Do you think that we’re in sort of a post-ethnic era, where the internet has lessened the effect of a drummer’s geographic roots on his or her own playing style? Or are there still distinct rhythmic flavors that musicians will only ever be able to play authentically if they come from the country of their origin?
David: Wow, good loaded question! Can white men play the blues? Can someone not born and bred in NOLA play second-line? Can a Scotsman play Latin music? Of course they can. Larry Harlow, nicknamed “the marvelous Jew” by salsa musicians, was 100 percent accepted. Granted, there are feels that are pretty ingrained and regional, but some folks can learn those too. Though it’s probably easier and quicker to work with someone raised in a style.
I think a lot of this issue is about perception of authenticity. Not true authenticity, which hardly exists, but a perception, as folks like a story attached to a performer. A story of background, biography, hardship—or not—etc. None of us are immune to those biases, but that’s what
Interview by Adam Budofsky