Portland, Oregon, drummer and poet John Niekrasz converses like he plays, with an intense, burgeoning energy that manages to touch on a myriad of disparate inspirations at a rapid, fluent clip. This dovetails with his lifelong obsession with language and the ways in which it intersects and inspires his rhythms and composition. These preoccupations come into focus with the self-titled debut album from Methods Body, his long-running duo project with keyboardist Luke Wyland.
Pulling inspiration from an encyclopedia of experimental sources that include Terry Riley, La Monte Young, German experimental rockers Can, and the ’60s New York psychedelic duo Silver Apples, the album resonates with a clarified power. Despite the heady reference points, the music is not a staid shuffle through progressive music clichés. Listeners will recognize the album’s rigor and technique, but its charms do not end there. Methods Body overflows with ideas, passion, and maturity; it’s an innovative album that feels natural and lived-in. We caught up with Niekrasz at his Portland-based studio.
MD: You came up in the Chicago punk and post-punk scenes in the ’90s. How did you become fascinated with language and the ways it can inform rhythm and composition?
John: I was always interested in jazz, so that language was there for me. I got a talking drum when I was sixteen, and that got me thinking about language. I started studying West African drum ensemble music. I studied music from Ghana, Ewe ensemble drumming, and music of the Ga and Ashanti people, and it spoke to me instantly. Even in the music I write today, there’s often something like a bell line and a multitom melody going on.
I was a writer, and I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school for writing. Even at sixteen I realized that my music and writing were not totally disparate worlds. In Africa they talk through their drums, and in India someone can speak their entire tabla composition—those things struck me. I started listening to tabla players Zakir Hussain and Alla Rakha and studying their music, and then composing based on text. To this day the majority of my composing starts with text—usually my own but sometimes other people’s. The rhythms of language are really complex and beautiful.
MD: This conception is not common in Western drumming. Can you talk more about that?
John: For composing, there’s something I came up with called syllabic notation. The most basic way uses syllabic scansion, which they teach in high school Shakespeare. I’ll mark the accented and unaccented syllables in a sentence. The binary accent system is the most obvious and the simplest way of doing this, and it applies well to bass and snare or ride and floor tom. A Danish linguistic theorist, Otto Jespersen, posited that even in English there are five levels of accents that are discernible. So I’ve done some composition based on that—two to four levels of accents are my comfort zone in a given line. I also listen to the melody and tonality of the spoken text, sometimes looping a spoken phrase until it becomes more musical sounding to me.
MD: On the new record, in “Claimed Events Pt. 2—Overheard,” it sounds like the drums are playing along to the vocal syllables.
John: Yes, for sure. That piece starts with a drum ostinato playing the rhythm and melody. When the voices enter, you realize that the drums are playing the melody and rhythm of the lyrics. The whole A side is actually riffing on a shorter phrase that we’ve elaborated on for almost two years, and it birthed all these other rhythmic and melodic ideas. That’s why the suite is called “Quiet.” The phrase is, “He didn’t come here to tell us to be quiet, he came here to tell us now that we’re quiet.” A little bit about tyranny!
MD: Tell us more about the writing process for this record.
John: At first we thought the whole album would be fast, ecstatic, and complex. That’s what we’ve always been good at. But what surprised us was that this wasn’t satisfying. It was right after the 2016 election, and we were asking a lot of questions like, How can we help? and feeling like, What’s the point of showing off right now? We spent a lot of time asking ourselves what our usefulness could be in music and the world. We came to the conclusion that this band is about our relationship. If Luke and I can be this model for nurturant masculinity and creative love—that would be great.
Photo by Harmony Hart