By his own admission, Jim Mola moved to New York in 1985 to set the world on fire as a drummer. Now, after thirty-three years of experience in the trenches as a working musician, the types of gigs he’s playing align exactly with what he hoped to be doing at this point in his career: regular session work, frequent gigs in speakeasies, bars, and small clubs, and a busy career as a clinician and educater including a faculity position at Manhattan’s famed Collective School of Music. What he never imagined was his literal place on the bandstand: that for roughly half of his gigs, he’d perform from downstage, crooning into a mic, rather than upstage, laying down a musical backdrop behind a set of tubs.

Mola, who is as talented and tasteful a drummer as they come, “worships at the altar of Elvin, Max, Tony, and Jack,” as he puts it. Yet raising a family in an inelastic place like New York City requires an elastic temperament, especially for a musician. As he explains it, while working the bar and wedding circuit, he stepped into his vocal and voiceover work through the back door. Whether he’s draping his velvety Sinatra over tunes in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd, running clinics at Drummers Collective, swinging like a studied madman behind Tony Bennett, or playing for millions with Weird Al Yankovic on HBO’s Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Mola makes his inherent musicality work for him. It’s what keeps him working.

As a voiceover specialist, Mola works with first-call musicians—Howard Shore, Shawn Pelton, John Patitucci—and observes what makes top-bill session players so special. He’s learned to inject that “something else” into his own playing; his singing has essentially turned him into a better drummer. Musicality and expression are at the forefront of his focus, regardless of his place on the bandstand. And even though he might earn better paychecks riffing on characters’ speaking and singing voices, he still understands the importance of one’s individual voice on the drums, and that the ultimate goal is expression.

In this latest chapter of Drum Wisdom, we ask Mola to lay out his priorities and offer insights that help us craft the sound we want to present to the world.

If you’re going to make a living in New York, you have to do everything but tap-dance. There’s a certain expectation that you can cover a lot of ground. When you get here it kind of slaps you in the face that you see so many creative musicians playing so many different styles. You want to pull more of that into what you do and make it part of your playing.

If you had told me in 1985 when I came to New York that I would be singing [on almost half of my gigs], there would’ve been a fistfight. Like John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ I grew up surrounded by family, and my cousins were my playmates. We would memorize the dialogue to old movies, so here I was at seven years old, walking around doing Jimmy Cagney impersonations. Fast-forward twenty years, and when I moved to New York people were calling me for gigs—bars, weddings, whatever—and they’d say, ‘We need someone to sing such and such a song.’ I’d say, ‘I didn’t come here to sing; I came here to play drums…but I can do it.’ So not only did I sing the song, but to amuse myself I sang it like the person. It became a commodity. I wasn’t planning on it. That turned into an entire career as a session singer.

Most singers guard, promote, and want to be known for their sound. I was interested in that as a drummer, not as a singer. I didn’t have that ego investment in singing. That led to all kinds of work, because I wasn’t attached to [any particular sound]. Drummers might get asked to tune their drums like Steve Gadd, and they might say, ‘You hired me—I want to be me!’ I didn’t have any of that when I was singing. I got to New York and I needed to make money, and the Screen Actors Guild is a lot more powerful than the musicians’ union. [laughs] You can play drums on a commercial or sing on a commercial, and the disparity between those two paychecks is just ridiculous.

It’s stupid to not do something that you’re able to do. For a creative business, you’d be surprised how often [music professionals] want to put you in a box so they know how to think about you. I tried really hard for a long time to keep [playing and singing work] separate. Maybe they might not take me seriously as a drummer. I would make jokes about my secret day job as a singer. But I got tired of all that. I do the things that I can do, trying to make a living, trying to support my family, trying to express myself as a musician.

Drummers do best when they concern themselves with the most basic musical ideas possible: form, structure, contrast, color…things that make music and art in general tick. If you get to the gig and you play what you practiced this afternoon, you’ve lost it. You’re no longer a part of the conversation, in the moment, honest. You sounded so good in the practice room, you can’t wait to do it on the bandstand. But if you learn the Gettysburg Address and your friend asks you what you’re doing Friday night and you launch into ‘Four score and seven years ago…’ you’re kind of crazy. Creativity is flexibility. It’s water, not stone.

The greatest compliment I’ve ever received from a musician came from a guitarist I was playing a gig with who told me, ‘Man, you understand a lot of different grooves.’ I think great musicians honor a certain quality of space and of how [their music] breathes. Whether it’s George Harrison, Eric Clapton, or McCoy Tyner…the dialect between those musicians changes, but there’s a sacred space that they all look for in their playing and the way their time feels. As a drummer I’ve tried to learn what those spaces, sounds, and dialects feel like.

Shapes and structures that produce a sound are artistically interesting. On [Dinah Washington’s] Dinah Jams, Max [Roach] plays these ideas that sounded to me like one long legato phrase. As a kid, I didn’t even realize there were separate stickings—it sounded very liquid to me. He played shapes a lot.

Equipment-wise I’m falling in love with everything I’ve got all over again. I’ve been with Sabian almost since they opened their doors. They’re in a spot right now where they’re making amazing cymbals and they’re willing to take chances. My main ride is a 24″ and it’s just the most expressive instrument. Aquarian heads have really made a difference too. They’re very warm and have a beautiful sound that’s a little shorter. That a drum ‘rings for days’ isn’t a musical consideration. I use the Jack DeJohnette heads on my snare and bass drums—the coating is a little thicker; they’re slightly drier. I use a few Vater Buzz Kills on my bass drum, and pretty much no muffling at all. I get more compliments from musicians—not just drummers.

Drummers need to get out of the drums. We need to practice like crazy, but we need to get out of the practice room. I think drummers would be much better served if they went and watched the Alvin Ailey Dance Company than going to another drum clinic. I love drum clinics—I give them and we need them—but if you’re not going to see Picasso’s or Michelangelo’s works you’re doing yourself a disservice.

In Florence, at the Accademia Gallery, in the hall leading to Michelangelo’s David, there is a series of blocks of marble that a pope had commissioned Michelangelo to make figures from, but they kept arguing about money, so he would stop. Then the pope would agree to pay, so he’d start a new one. So there are all these blocks of marble in various degrees of completion. Every single one of these blocks looked like there was a man inside it trying to get out. It was stop-you-in-your-tracks amazing. That’s what [Michelangelo] saw. He said, ‘I’m just trying to release what’s in the marble.’ That’s an artist’s vision. I think the people who drummers idolize, when they’re at their best, they’re freeing the music that’s inside.

Mola uses Vater sticks and mallets, Sabian cymbals, Aquarian heads, Humes and Berg cases, Cympads, and PreSonus electronics. He usually plays a Gretsch square-badge walnut set and a 1930s 7×14 Slingerland Radio King or 5.5×14 Canopus snare.