Gearing Up

Medeski, Martin and Wood’s

Billy Martin

Interview by Dave Previ
Photos by Paul LaRaia

We recently visited MMW co-founder Billy Martin at his home studio, which is a custom-built shed on the drummer’s New Jersey property that he uses to teach, compose, practice, and conduct workshops. The simple, beautiful, four-piece drumkit that lives in the space is a special one that was built for Martin several years ago by the late, great craftsman Johnny Craviotto. Billy outfits the kit with a sparse cymbal selection comprising one small crash/ride and a set of hi-hats. “I found the cymbal in a hockshop on the road,” says Martin. “It fits in my suitcase, so I don’t have to carry a [separate] cymbal bag. I bring a lot of percussion in a suitcase when I go on the road, and the ride fits in there nicely with my hi-hats. It has a good crash and a good ride without being too ringy.”

Discussing his eclectic collection of Morfbeats percussion instruments, Billy says, “Adam Morford is a prolific metal percussion creator along the lines of Pete Engelhart. He took a Skype lesson with me, and we talked about things that I used on records. He had very specific questions about sounds that he heard. I drew him some designs, and he made me what we talked about. The smaller metal shapes are a new collaboration we just started. I wanted to string them together like seedpods for an atmospheric sound, but I ended up putting them on some foam, which helps them vibrate. They are made out of steel, and I play them with my hands or sticks.

“I like to get unique tones out of metal,” Martin continues. “I’m always looking for a certain relationship of tones. I’ll put unrelated pieces of metal next to each other to create some kind of harmonic relationship, whether it’s a scale or something microtonal.”

Another unique approach for Martin is that he’ll often play his drums and percussion with twigs and branches rather than standard drumsticks. “[Experimental jazz great] Bob Moses is a mentor of mine, and he made those for me,” says Billy. “He’s known for playing with twigs and sticks. They handicap you in one way and give you an advantage in another. Because they’re different shapes, they make you play differently. And I like being thrown off a little when I’m playing.”

The latest addition to Martin’s setup is the Ableton Live electronics rig. “This is a brand-new endeavor for me,” he says. “It’s been since the ’80s that I’ve used electronics. I use it to make breakbeats and bass lines. Veve Mechanic is a new project of mine that’s more dance-oriented, so I’ve been exploring Ableton for those sounds. The Push pad is really incredible. I can make choices on the spot, so there’s still an improv element. Even though I have loops ready to trigger, there are always things I can change. I might detune the bass line or slow down the tempo, and I can combine different parts and then play along. I’ve been using it with different musicians to see how everyone reacts. It’s another way of jamming, with the goal being to seamlessly blend in the electronics while keeping the music organic.”

Drums: Craviotto
A. 5.5×14 snare
B. 9×12 tom
C. 14×14 floor tom
D. 14×20 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
1. 14″ Constantinople hi-hats
2. 16″ A ride with six holes for rivets (none installed)

Percussion: Morfbeats hammered metal percussion bells (made by Adam Morford), circular metal instruments from Revival Drum Shop in Portland, sound rings from Nepal, nipple gongs from Thailand, flat gongs from China, a 6″ pot lid, and agogo bells

Hardware: Canopus

Drumheads: Attack Terry Bozzio model

Accessories: A leather pouch filled with coins and strapped to a lug for use as a dampener

Sticks: Regal Tip Billy Martin signature model and various twigs

Electronics: Ableton Live software and Push pad