At the time of this interview, Marian Li-Pino of L.A.-based-via-Seattle psych-surf band La Luz had just returned from finishing their new album, Floating Features, at Dan Auerbach’s Nashville-based Easy Eye Studio. Li-Pino was riding high and excited about the creative experience and the amazing studio. Auerbach was also suitably impressed. “Marian is one of the best drummers I’ve ever recorded. She has a very even touch on the drums—perfectly suited towards recording. She comes up with great parts, and she always listens to the rest of the band. She’s basically a producer’s dream.”
For a young musician, who just moved from the smaller Seattle scene to the vast L.A. music landscape, this advocacy points to huge things on the horizon. For the time being, though, Li-Pino is a talent who is slightly under the radar.
I was introduced to the drumming of Li-Pino and her band when I asked one of my students to bring in some beats to work on. While the garage/psych/surf attack of La Luz was undeniably catchy, I was immediately drawn to Li-Pino’s crisp syncopations, powerful groove, and taste. Here was a drummer who achieved that elusive balance between accessibility and complexity. Her playing can appeal to students of technique and songcraft in equal measure, all the while remaining transparent for the average music fan. La Luz’s albums It’s Alive (2013), the Ty Segall produced Weirdo Shrine (2015), and the just-out Floating Features highlight Marian’s creativity and growth as a musician.
Not only is Li-Pino a great drummer, she’s a very generous person, agreeing to work with my student via Facetime so we could pinpoint the subtleties of some of her trickier beats. We spoke recently about her influences and drumming approach.
MD: I’d like to begin by asking about your musical upbringing. Your family is Chilean, and you’ve previously spoken about your love of Arturo Sandoval, Astrud Gilberto/Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Juan Luis Guerra.
Marian: Yes! What Latin music did was open my eyes to the idea of a percussion section rather than a singular drummer, and how, pulled apart, each person’s rhythm is simple. But when put together, the end result is complex and nuanced and filled with depth. I want each limb to effectively be a part of a percussive group.
MD: I understand that you studied percussion as well as drumset. When did you start playing?
Marian: I grew up in Seattle and began drum lessons at around age ten or eleven, continuing them throughout middle school and high school with different instructors. At the time I focused mainly on percussive training—everything from triangle to timpani. I played in a drum ensemble and also band orchestras, with a couple jazz classes here and there. Throughout all this, I was using the techniques I learned to play around on the kit.
MD: I know that you have a daily practice regimen. What are you working on these days?
Marian: My practice regimen consists of working on my weaknesses. My kick drum foot is basically at a beginner level, so I’ve been steadily working on exceedingly boring exercises at the kit that take forever but have to be done. Each time I reach a milestone I use it as a short warm-up for the next time and then move on to a new exercise to continue my progress. I’ve also been bored with my fills and found that my body has fallen into a routine, so I’m trying to build my arsenal with different voicings and syncopations. All of this is done to a click. Then, of course, I allow some time at the end of rehearsal for me to use the new things I’ve learned with music I like playing to. That way I let out some steam in a more productive way. I practice between two and three hours at a time and try to go every day or every other day.
MD: Do you have any advice on keeping a consistent practice routine? Any resources that we might be interested in?
Marian: Lately my focus with practice routines is to have extreme patience. Patience to not only learn a fill or groove, but also to live within it and tweak it and push it and make it feel natural within every setting. To find or create variances and move freely between them. That sort of thing can take days or weeks, and it’s often tempting to simply nail something and forget about it. So my advice is: Don’t just learn something, really internalize it and make it your own by changing where the accents are, or how you voice the phrase. As for tools, lately I’ve been spending thirty dollars a month to look up instructional videos—shout out to Mike Johnston at mikeslessons.com—and grow myself that way. If you do it right, there’s a lot to pull from it.
MD: There feels like there was a huge technical jump in the drum parts between It’s Alive and Weirdo Shrine. For instance, on the tune “With Davey” your snare pattern is complicated but doesn’t distract from the tune.
Marian: I think that, possibly, with Weirdo Shrine I started to break out a bit more and take more creative liberty. Shana [Cleveland, La Luz’s guitarist and songwriter] has specific things she wants to hear, and I try to hit those but also add a little more sauce to fill up the songs. The problem is making sure not to overplay—which I am pretty bad at!
MD: Are there any tunes where your complicated sensibilities snuck through?
Marian: Oh, my gosh, in those first two albums I was always trying to sneak in more complicated stuff. Poor Shana just wanted a simple surf beat for pretty much every song, and I completely distorted that vision. You’ll notice that there is always a 2 and 4 snare, but I’m adding the percussion section around it. Examples are “With Davey,” “I Wanna Be Alone,” “Sunstroke,” “Morning High”…the list goes on and on. I’m making a mess of everything! [laughs] And live it’s even worse—I screw around so much on “Call Me in the Day.” But I don’t do it to distract, I do it to have fun and to keep it interesting and add some flavor.
MD: Can you give me a rundown of your current live kit?
Marian: Currently I’m playing on a custom C&C kit that is made from African and Luan mahogany, and poplar. The snare is a maple C&C. My hi-hats are from Dream cymbals, 14″ Bliss. My ride is a 19″ Istanbul Agop. All together everything sounds dark and washy.
MD: Can you talk about your new album a bit—the writing sessions, the recording?
Marian: This new album felt like it went through a really different process from the rest. Shana did a good job of coming to us before she began writing and asking us to provide her with parts or influences so that she could sort of mold her process around that. We co-wrote some grooves, and it was fun just kind of bouncing ideas around, messing with arrangements, really thinking about transitions and sort of trimming the fat. I didn’t feel the need to overplay. The songs were strong, and I wanted them to have the space they deserved. You won’t hear as many Latin grooves, it’s a bit more straight rock, but still weird and psychedelic. This was a really deep collaborative effort, and what we have now is an album that is, in my opinion, the best one we’ve written.
We spent about two weeks recording. We produced it with Dan Auerbach at his studio in Nashville; Allen Parker engineered it. I can’t speak for the band, but to me, the biggest difference between Weirdo Shrine and this album was having a state-of-the-art studio to work with. Everything was set up and ready to go at all times, there was no waiting around, every concept we had was immediately put into action. Dan had some cool ideas for extra parts, and Allen just worked constant magic to tie it all together cohesively.
MD: What kinds of advice would you give about executing parts in the studio?
Marian: It’s hard to give advice for the studio environment; everyone has their own hang-ups or fears. I think the best way to prepare is to practice a ton before going in. Make sure to have all your fills and transitions smoothed out, and record yourself so that you can tell if you’re repeating an annoying phrase, or if you tend to speed during a certain section, or if something just isn’t working with the song. It gives you confidence when you know you’ve heard it through a listener’s perspective and adjusted your playing to better suit the song.
MD: Along these lines, you have a great feel for accompaniment. A lot of drummers don’t seem to be able to find that balance. Can you talk about how that developed?
Marian: Listening to your fellow musicians, building on what they’re playing, supporting it, or challenging it, all through sound and feel, is very important. On the flip side, it’s key to know when to keep your voice down. If we all spoke at once you’d never be able to follow the topic. Dynamics are essential as well; controlling your sound level at key times can turn a good song into a great song.
In the end, nobody really cares if you’re playing a sick samba rhythm on the ride cymbal with a surf backbeat and an offbeat hi-hat that alternates between splashing and closing. They just want you to shut the hell up so that they can hear what the singer is saying. I’m into the idea of playing stripped down and hitting the deepest pocket I can find and staying there and letting the songs speak for themselves.