A New Breed
For a generation of budding drummers and musicians, YouTube play counts might mean more than Billboard or iTunes charts. This multifaceted drummer found his own unique voice in that climate, thanks in part to a vast amount of talent and the help of a few friends. That voice would take him on a journey around the world.
Drummer, solo artist, multi-instrumentalist, engineer, mixer, producer, video director, camera operator, content creator, viral star…. The credits don’t end there. But as a prolific solo artist and one-half of the core group of the indie/ electronic/jazz group Knower, Louis Cole has built himself a substantial career utilizing them all, in ten action-packed years. International tours, millions of online views and streams via various platforms, and opening spots for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and collaborations with artists such as the prolific bassist Tim Levebvre and modern funk sensations Vulfpeck only add to his output.
It took Cole, now thirty-two, a few years to turn that talent into success after graduating from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music in 2009. Shortly after throwing the cap and launching a solo career in L.A., the drummer joined vocalist Genevieve Artadi and formed Knower. Since then, Cole and Knower have built a substantial online and touring presence thanks in part to their infectious pop/funk-infused tunes, as well as the band’s unique “live session” YouTube videos that are infused with ’80s and ’90s–inspired VHS homemade tape filters, Stanley Kubrick–ian aesthetics, and Nintendo graphics, all shot in Cole’s home.
But beyond any forward-thinking marketing sense Cole brings to his group and solo material, his technique, feel, and distinct studio tone alone behind the skins would arguably get him hired in plenty of gigging situations. Check out Knower’s YouTube video “Overtime (Live Band sesh),” where the drummer’s open-handed style and Stubblefield/Jabo–inspired ghost notes bring a refreshing live funk and jazz vibe to the electro-pop studio version of the track. Or dig into the laid-back, groove-laden live version of Cole’s “Bank Account,” which finds him tearing it up from behind a keyboard and at the kit.
Most recently Cole has released his second full-length solo album, Time; was featured as a guest artist with Vulfpeck on the burning track “It Gets Funkier IV” from their Hill Climber album; and arranged big band versions of his solo material for a few unique groups—both home (literally) and abroad. We checked in with the drummer soon after he wrapped up a very busy 2018.
From the Top
MD: What brought you to the drums?
Louis: I used to bang my head on a pillow and sing when I was a little kid. It used to drive my friends nuts. I had trouble going to sleepovers, because I couldn’t sleep without doing that. And I think I just had to get rhythm out of my body. It used to be kind of a problem. But from there, I’d play on my mom’s pots and pans.
I started getting obsessed with drums because they looked so cool. They had so many moving parts and pieces of metal. I had this book with pictures of drums, and I’d just stare at it. So my parents, to make sure I was serious, bought me one drum at a time. I had a snare at first, with a cardboard box bass drum and what was basically a plastic jug. But I started taking drum lessons when I was eight, so I guess that’s when I really started playing for real.
MD: What was your lesson experience like?
Louis: My drum teacher showed me basic rudiments. But he’d also bring in beats from these New Orleans drummers—stuff from Stanton Moore, Herlin Riley, and Johnny Vidacovich. And I remember being really grateful that he showed me that stuff.
MD: What led you to USC?
Louis: I decided that I wanted to get more serious about music after hearing the Tony Williams Lifetime album Emergency! It was just so intense, messed up, and beautiful at the same time. It changed my life. I think after that point I decided I wanted to go to school for music.
MD: You studied with Ndugu Chancler, Peter Erskine, and Aaron Serfaty at USC. How was that experience?
Louis: Ndugu was awesome, but scary at first. [laughs] He had a really intimidating vibe, but that was just his vibe. At first I was really intimidated to go to lessons. I had lower confidence in myself at that point. I hadn’t really developed my thing yet. But eventually we became more comfortable, and it became more fun, and he realized that I was serious, practicing, and trying to get better and sound good.
The coolest stuff he showed me was about the sound of the drums, and how every note matters. Every backbeat or ghost note should be the same volume, along with the bass drum or cymbals. You could apply that to anything.
MD: How was studying with Peter?
Louis: He showed me some great stuff, but he realized at that point that I was on my own path. That was during the second half of my time there, and I had a vision of what I wanted to do and be. So he didn’t try to get in the way or mess with anything. He showed me other stuff, just to show me, but he never made me spend all my time working on bebop fills or something if I didn’t want to. That was cool of him. He let me do what I wanted to do.
But the guy who really helped me there was Aaron Serfaty. My technique was horrible, and I kept injuring myself. He showed me how to use a loose technique, and I think that was game changing for me.
MD: After USC, what was the plan?
Louis: Man, that was such a weird era for me. I knew that I loved music a lot, and at that point I just wanted to get better at drums. I was practicing every day. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with music. I think I was starting to slowly figure out that my favorite thing about music was writing. My first album comprises that era and before, when I would just mess around on GarageBand.
But my friend, Jack Conte, he’s like a YouTube music pioneer. He knew that I loved writing, and he liked my music a lot. So he had this big pep talk with me, and he basically asked, “What are you doing with your life? You should just release your own music and make your own career by making music videos and recordings of yourself on YouTube.”
He had already done all that stuff, so I knew it was possible. I’d always thought about doing it. I just felt like I didn’t deserve something that cool. [laughs] I didn’t think that I could have a career like that, or that anyone would want to hear my music that much where I’d have a career. But he really encouraged me and said to do it. That talk changed my life. From that point on, I said that’s my choice in life. I knew that was my passion, so if I could make a career out of it, then I’d be happy.
So that’s what I did. That was around 2008 or 2009. And it wasn’t until 2017 or so that I started to really break. After school I lived with my parents for about seven years, which was cool of them to let me do. They knew that I was working hard, so they never worried that I was going to be alright, even though it’s not really a sure-fire thing to reach for. But they believed in me and let me work my shit out while I got my career together.
MD: Would you consider YouTube and social media an important part of your music career?
Louis: Oh, man, it’s everything. I probably wouldn’t even be here talking to you. YouTube and Facebook have really helped. I mean, you can sound like me and reach people? [laughs] I don’t know if it was like that before. I think you’d have to get a record deal or something first to make that happen. But I know that just being able to upload songs on YouTube and Facebook, and do everything yourself, it’s crazy and makes a lot of stuff possible. Knower
MD: What’s the past year been like with Knower?
Louis: I’ve been traveling a lot, especially last year. Europe, Russia…. But this year I’m making it a point to be able to stay at home and write music. I felt a little bit empty after touring so much, actually.
MD: Are you the primary writer in Knower?
Louis: Yeah, but right now Genevieve and I are working hard on writing lyrics and melodies together. I’ve been doing a lot of the instrumental parts, but we work together closely on a lot of the parts that I’ve written, so she’s a part of that process.
MD: How’d you guys form?
Louis: She sent me some ratty-sounding GarageBand demos. They were cool, lo-fi things that she wanted me to work on. I took them home and started writing and trying ideas.
Everyone else I’ve worked with before always wanted a safe-sounding track, or something that wasn’t edgy. So I thought that maybe she’d want that, too. And then she was like, “What is this weak shit? This has to be crazy.” After that, we decided we’d just go maximum, full-blast on everything we did. And I think we’ve kind of stuck to that.
MD: How was opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers for six shows in Europe and Mexico?
Louis: Man, that was crazy. After we got into Rome, backstage in our trailer, we thought, How the hell are we here? Why did they ask us? About an hour before we were about to go onstage, maybe even less, someone came up to me and said that Anthony Kiedis wanted to talk to me. I went back to his trailer area, and he said, “Hey, I saw your video called ‘Bank Account,’ and so I wanted you to open for us.” “Bank Account” is this tiny song that I released online where I’m just playing keyboard and singing about my bank account being scary. Just the thought that this little song got us an opening slot for Red Hot Chili Peppers is really funny to me. But there were 40,000 people in some of those crowds. I think after that, no other show will be scary.
MD: In terms of your feel, I hear a lot of the James Brown–era drummers in Knower’s material.
Louis: I used to practice to the “Funky Drummer” beat all the time when I was younger. I remember I used to build Legos all day and listen to James Brown constantly. And I think it just dug itself into my brain. All day, listening to James Brown on a loop, whichever album it was. I’d loop it the whole day.
I’d say probably my favorite drum beat of all time is that groove on “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing,” which is John “Jabo” Starks on drums. I don’t how to describe how grooving it is. It’s this four-on-the-floor funk beat. It’s just this all-encompassing groove on this medium-tempo song. And it just blows my head off every time. It just surrounds you.
As far as feel goes, I definitely think those New Orleans guys that my drum teacher used to tell me to check out helped. They have a slightly swung, slightly straight vibe that feels awesome. And Jack DeJohnette has one of the coolest feels ever. I used to sound exactly like a bad Jack DeJohnette rip-off in high school, before I started to straighten out and work on my time. [laughs] I think once I started to write fast funk music that I thought I had to be really tight if it’s fast—I mean it doesn’t have to be, I just thought it sounded better like that—but I guess that’s when I really started to practice metronomically perfect time. So I’d check out dudes like Nate Wood and Keith Carlock. They have insane amounts of control over the drumset, especially for this style.
MD: I noticed that you’ll play these flurries of five or six notes on the snare or hi-hat with one hand when playing at faster tempos.
Louis: I’d say the first guy I got that from was Jack DeJohnette, and then Tony Williams. And Keith Carlock is a ghost-note machine. That guy is like haunted, dude. [laughs] But I thought it was tight. You could play a bunch of notes, and it doesn’t get in the way. It’s still subtle and dictates where the time is. And Bernard Purdie, he’s amazing at that.
MD: Are you mostly using a finger technique for those types of patterns?
Louis: I think I got better at those phrases, and then locked in with better time, when I started just letting the stick bounce and not even trying to control it too much. But I’m still using my fingers to help those phrases stay in time.
MD: Are there any specific exercises you practice?
Louis: I mostly only practice trying to get my time better. Just time, not beats. And really, I’m trying to change my bass drum technique to make it better and less tense, and change my hi-hat technique. I’m right in the middle of this new mission of trying to get my technique looser, especially in my feet.
But in terms of my hand technique, I’ll play along with a fast three- or four-minute song, and I’ll try to play the entire track with straight, one-handed 16th notes without getting tense. And I’ll try to do the same thing with my bass drum and try to play a bunch of notes in a row without getting tense. It’s so hard, man. I haven’t cracked the code. [laughs] But hopefully soon. And there was a while where I was trying to play a ton of ghost notes with my hands and let them bounce freely while hitting my bass drum in random patterns without flamming [the two voices] at all.
I’m trying to build endurance, and I think that being loose is the key for that. If it’s a studio track, I can just push through it and do it. But if it’s a whole live show, I really have to try to make it through, unless my technique is perfected.
MD: How’d you develop your open-handed style?
Louis: I set up my snare wrong when I first got my bass drum. I didn’t know where to put the bass drum at that point, because before that I just had a snare and the cardboard-box bass drum. At some point I put my bass drum on the wrong side—on the right side of my right leg. And I started playing like that. I think when my drum teacher first came over, he just said, “No, I don’t think you should put it there.” So I put the snare drum in the right spot, but I still kept my open-handed technique from then on.
MD: You have such a dry, unique, and almost vintage drum tone.
Louis: When I record, I really like using an 18″ or 16″ bass drum. I think it’s easier to mix, and it cuts through more. And I kind of like my bass drum half-open. What I mean is, I don’t put any muffling inside of it, and I’ll use a Remo Ambassador on both sides. But I’ll completely detune the resonant head and put a big towel on that side. The batter head is tuned a lot higher, except three of the screws are completely loose. So it gives you a little bit of ring, but also enough deadness to control it in a mix.
Also, I’ll put a microphone between the snare and kick drum, right near where the floor tom edge is. I got this piece-of-crap microphone from OfficeMax or Office Depot when I was eighteen. It’s like one of these conference mics from Logitech that looks like a bent straw. That’s all I had—it was the only microphone under twenty dollars. So I got it, and I’ve been rebuying those things because I realized they sound so amazing. And on a lot of the older Knower stuff , I just used one microphone. Lately I’ve been starting to bring more mics in, like on the last album. But I still put a microphone in that spot.
And if there’s only one mic, I just put it between the kick and snare, and it has a lot to do with the sound. It makes the cymbals quieter, and it makes it really punchy, and it makes the kick drum and snare somehow have the same level of punch, so that they’re not in separate worlds. They kind of sound like the same thing. So I think that setup has a lot to do with it.
When I met the guys from Vulfpeck, that’s one of the things that Jack [Stratton] and I noticed the fi rst time we hung out. I said, “I like to put my microphone there between the kick and the snare.” He said, “Dude, I do that, too.” [laughs] And he gets amazing drum sounds. So I guess that’s the spot, man.
MD: Where do you record?
Louis: At home in my garage and living room. I don’t like going to studios, because I just don’t feel comfortable. I like being at home and by myself. Even when I’ve done collaborations with bigger artists, I’ll be in the studio, and I’ll say, “Alright, sounds great. I’m going to take this home and work on it by myself.” I just like being at home next to my stuff and my windows and my kitchen.
MD: How has producing and mixing influenced your philosophy behind the kit?
Louis: Trying to get better at those two roles made me better at drums in terms of coming up with parts. When someone else is playing something, I’m able to play something that fi ts in the moment. It’s helped me and opened my mind to thinking about drum parts and sound in a different way, or a better way for me at least.
MD: What’s the plan for 2019?
Louis: I want to get better at drums, definitely. But I think my goal is to try to write the best music I could possibly write. In 2018, I was a little stressed out. I wasn’t able to write enough music because I was touring so much. But so far, I’m writing stuff that I’m really happy with. So I feel really alive right now.
In 2017 I released three really short songs. It was just this little series of three songs that were mostly around two minutes or a minute and a half. But I think I might do that kind of thing again instead of making my next full-length album or EP. I already have one of them done, and I’m working on another one.
MD: You recently released two videos with a big band in your living room playing your material. Are you planning on expanding on that?
Louis: That was just with a bunch of friends that I know from L.A. And recently I went on a tour and had a professional Swedish big band play with me, and that was really cool. I definitely want to do more stuff with that. Playing live with that amount of power onstage is so fun. It’s fun to arrange my music for those groups, because it’s a whole new sound and inspiration for me. So I’m definitely going to do more. I want to go bigger in the future. [laughs]
Knower Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi (2010), Think Thoughts (2011), Let Go (2013), Life (2016) /// Louis Cole Album 2 (2011), Time (2018)
Inspiration…And Inspired Grooves
“Talking Loud and Saying Nothing” (John “Jabo” Starks)
Check out this tasty groove Starks lays on James Brown’s classic track off the 1972 album There It Is.
“Funky Drummer” (Clyde Stubblefield)
And here’s the timeless groove Stubblefield played on the perennial James Brown groover, “Funky Drummer,” from In the Jungle Groove.
The live-session version of this track, found on YouTube, features this killer pattern Cole plays just as the band explodes around the 0:34 mark.
“Bank Account” (Louis Cole)
In his video for “Bank Account,” Cole plays this “Jabo” inspired groove between a cymbal resting on a floor tom and his crisp, dry snare.
“It Gets Funkier IV” (Vulfpeck, Hill Climber)
And on his guest appearance with the modern funk darlings Vulfpeck, Cole lays down this blazing break around the 1:50 mark.