His playing in the resolutely unclassifiable band Kneebody seems like a match made in heaven. But you might be surprised by what he has―and hasn’t―focused on while perfecting his craft.
Is Kneebody the contemporary version of New Orleans’ beat-slaying band the Meters? Well, it is and it ain’t. The quintet, based in L.A. and Brooklyn, takes a similar rhythmic approach in theory, if not in literal execution. Like the Meters, Kneebody, which features a drums/bass/keyboards/saxophone/trumpet lineup, plies multiple rhythms and often several time signatures within the same song, pitting those rhythms against each other. Drummer Nate Wood might play in 6/4 while his mates play in 4/4, or he’ll create a rhythmic web comprising snare drags and ruffs, off-kilter beats, and sequential bass drum accents, propelling the band to outer space and back. Is Kneebody jazz? Math rock? Avant-funk? Free hip-hop? The group is all these things and none of them. Its weird sound is of everywhere and nowhere.
On Kneebody’s nine albums, including the latest, The Line, the band meshes amorphous styles with something unquantifiable in queasy, free-flowing compositions. And Wood is the perfect drummer for this polyglot ensemble. Not only is he a mastering engineer and singer-songwriter in his own right, but he plays guitar and sings in Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins’ Coattail Riders, plays drums and bass in guitarist Wayne Krantz’s influential free-form trio, and drums with out-of-bounds jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan and in Mark Guiliana’s and pianist Sean Wayland’s groups. Wood’s two solo albums, Reliving and Fall, recall the Silverlake singer-songwriter scene more than jazz, rock ’n’ roll, or anything in between.
From his experiences double drumming with Keith Carlock in Krantz’s trio, Wood seems to have grown similar Carlock-ian limbs with Kneebody, creating on The Line everything from itchy snare ruffs and time-stretching metric modulations to jarring beats (“Trite,” “Still Play”) and booming bass drum enunciations (“Sleeveless”). But Wood is entirely his own drummer on the album’s cacophonous title track and the carnival-esque “Work Hard, Play Hard, Towel Hard,” where his full-set slamming and speedy note spray are simply astonishing.
MD: Your drumming often consists of linear, angular beats featuring metric modulation and snare drags and ruffs. How would you describe the core of your playing?
Nate: I’m trying to think melodically and rhythmically and not use any reference points. That is really our goal in Kneebody, to not play from our comfort zones or repeat ourselves. I’ve listened to a ton of Wayne Krantz’s music and Miles Davis with Tony Williams, and I love Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian. And I’ve also really been into rock, drum ’n’ bass, and hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest and D’Angelo. It’s like a blender.
MD: Kneebody’s music can be dissonant and in minor keys. Does that kind of harmonic info cause you to play differently?
Nate: It forces my response to be more angular and less straight up and down. If the music is unresolved, it forces me to play unresolved in a way. We are making the music with no compromises. I’m free to do anything.
MD: Your drum sound is also unique. The snare sometimes sounds as if the air has been sucked out of it, and at other times it sounds like a sample.
Nate: I treated the snare drums on The Line. To make it more dead sounding, I put a piece of paper on the head, or, to make it even more dead, a cloth. At other times I’ll place a splash cymbal or mini gong on the snare drum. It makes the attack really short; it also gives me another surface to hit. We backlined a Gretsch kit from SIR, and I used a wood Gretsch 5×14 snare and an old Leedy. And on half the record I played a super-light 1960s student drum.
MD: What kind of paper did you put on the snare head?
Nate: Anything I could find at the bar: 81/2×11 notebook paper, newspaper, whatever. I learned that trick from producer Jon Brion. I did a movie date with him where he put two pieces of paper on my snare head for a particular sound he wanted.
MD: Your bass drum changes pitch and tonality as well.
Nate: It’s all in how I hit it. I either dig the beater into the head or let it bounce away so the drum rings more. I try to get short and long notes out of every drum. I often put splash cymbals on top of the toms or tune the toms real open for long notes as well.
MD: On “Lowell” you play a lockstep rhythm with the Rhodes piano. You’re almost marching across the staff with the keyboard. Why do you do that where you do it?
Nate: That was the writer’s idea. We do that lockstep thing very emphatically there. When I play with Wayne Krantz he doesn’t like that; he wants everyone doing different and complementary things.
MD: “Trite,” your showcase on The Line, sounds like 2 and 4 on the snare with the drums in half time, while the band seems to play at a faster rate around you.
Nate: Exactly. What I’m playing is pretty simple. The tune is in six, but the band is playing in 4/4. I’m just hitting backbeats and following the bass pattern with the kick drum.
MD: Do you use matched or traditional grip?
Nate: Mostly matched. I tried traditional during a three-week tour with Wayne and Keith Carlock, where I played drums and bass. Traditional ultimately didn’t work for me. We set up a second drumset on that tour. When I was bored with playing bass, Keith and I would play double drums. Wayne’s next record is half me playing drums with him and Keith, and half me playing drums and Tim Lefebvre playing bass.
MD: What does playing both bass and drums in Krantz’s group give you?
Nate: Playing bass in that band is so different from playing drums. The energy and interaction there is up to the drums and guitar. The bass has more of a complementary voice and augments whatever Wayne is playing to make the music sound prettier or nastier or more obscure. I am technically nowhere near Tim Lefebvre on bass. [But] I understand the role and can complement and stay out of the way.
MD: Does playing bass in Krantz’s trio give you any special insight as a drummer?
Nate: When you double drum like that you learn a lot about your playing and your sound. Keith has a really big, beautiful, relaxed sound. And it’s very precise because his hands are so precise. That made me realize that my sound is sharper. And I don’t play as loudly as Keith; it’s a different sound. I realized that Keith used more bounce or rebound than I did. On that tour I played stiffer and more into the drum, not really using any bounce. But I learned from watching Keith how to let the drum and the cymbal do more of the bounce, and my sound is a little bigger now.
MD: How did you develop your linear approach?
Nate: It comes from listening to Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams. You could isolate those guys and they would be playing melodies the entire time. They’re making their own piece of music that is concurrent with the music that’s happening. More rock-based linear drummers are more like a drum machine programmed to random. I like that sound too. I’ve always worked on playing a phrase and making it melodic. My linear playing comes out of trying to do that.
MD: Can you break down your sticking on “Work Hard, Play Hard, Towel Hard”?
Nate: No, I honestly can’t break down anything unless I slow it down and analyze it. I don’t work from stickings, and I never went through the [rudimental] books. I don’t think of it like that; I think of it more in terms of how something sounds.
MD: So how did you develop your technique if you didn’t go through Stick Control or other rudiment oriented materials?
Nate: Just playing something until I really had it nailed. When I first tried to play jazz at fifteen, I played along with Four & More, the most frenetic Miles Davis album ever. I would get a few minutes into it, then my hands would burn out. But I did it over and over again, and eventually I could play along.
MD: But you studied music in college.
Nate: I went to L.A. Music Academy for three quarters of a year, then to California Institute of the Arts for three years. And I learned a little Moeller technique—which really screwed me up. I’d already worked out my own way of playing, but it all came back. People ask now if I’m using Moeller, but I’m not; I’m just trying to get a sound. Part of what I learned from Keith Carlock was how to play off the drum, and that might be related to Moeller, trying to get a bigger sound.
MD: How did your drumming progress?
Nate: I come from a family of musicians. My dad, Steve Wood, was a touring keyboard player, and he worked with a lot of great drummers, including Tris Imboden, who played in his band, Honk. And my mom was a singer-songwriter. At an early age I was working hard to make the time sound good in my parents’ band. Later I did more jazz and avant-garde gigs, especially here in New York.
MD: Playing Kneebody’s music could be both overwhelming and an excuse to overplay. How do you balance that?
Nate: I like to focus on the quietest person in the band. If you can hear them, you can hear everybody. Then you’re not going to run all over everybody, unless you’re an egomaniac. I want to make the band and the soloists sound as good as possible.
MD: How did you focus your practice time in college?
Nate: I’ve practiced three or four hours a day since I was nine. I’d play along to records on bass or drums or guitar. I also played with a click, and I improvised. Now I’m focusing on getting a good sound on the drums, working on playing things I can’t do, or coming up with new things. And I’m working on my hands—I was always jealous of drum corps players.
MD: What has playing multiple instruments ultimately given you?
Nate: The ability to play with a lot of people. Producers have hired me to play all the instruments on records. I learn the music more thoroughly because I’m learning all the parts, not just the drums. I also record bands at my studio in Greenpoint, New York, where I master records as well. I mastered Wayne’s last record, for instance. But the coolest thing is that it’s given me the ability to play with some of my favorite drummers in the world. I’m not always worrying what Nate the drummer wants.
Tools Of The Trade
Wood plays a vintage Gretsch kit featuring an 8×12 tom, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, a 14×20 bass drum, and a 5.5×14 snare. His Istanbul Agop cymbals include 15″ Cindy Blackman OM series hi-hats, a 22″ 30th Anniversary ride, a 24″ 30th Anniversary ride, and a 20″ Trash Hit. His Remo heads include a Coated Ambassador snare batter and Ambassador Snare Side, Coated Ambassador tom batters and Clear Diplomat bottoms, and a Clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter and Coated Ambassador front head. He uses Vic Firth 5A sticks and Jazz brushes.
The Police all (Stewart Copeland) /// Wayne Krantz Greenwich Mean (Keith Carlock) /// Paul Motian It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago (Paul Motian) /// Astroid Power-Up! Google Plex (Deantoni Parks)/// Miles Davis Nefertiti, Live at the Plugged Nickel (Tony Williams) /// AlasNoAxis Splay (Jim Black) /// D’Angelo Voodoo (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson)
Kneebody all /// Tigran Hamasyan Aratta Rebirth: Red Hail, Shadow Theater (“Red Hail is probably the record I’m most known for internationally,” Wood says. “Tigran has taught me more about odd-time phrasing than anyone else.”) ///Ben Wendel Frame /// Nate Wood Reliving, Fall