The natural-born thriller’s curious, powerful beats have made him a favorite among indie-rock royalty.
Any proper search for truth or wisdom is fostered by a healthy appetite for good, in-depth information, a burning need to ask all the right questions, and the perseverance to experience a personal breakthrough. Austin-based drummer Cully Symington, who’s performed with the Afghan Whigs, Okkervil River, Cursive, and Shearwater, among other respected members of the indie-rock community, is indeed wise beyond his years. A hard hitting style has helped Symington gain much momentum and attention within the music community over the past several years, and the drummer’s increasingly dynamic career demonstrates a wide artistic range, a thirst for knowledge, a confidence within various band settings, and a willingness to serve the song in any way possible.
“I try to spread out as much as I can and do as many different projects as possible,” Symington says. “I like to play with a bunch of different bands, because it’s good to stretch out and even be uncomfortable. It’s fun to go to the practice room and work on certain aspects of my playing.”
Although it’s difficult to define Symington’s work as a whole, perusing the totality and the microscopic details of his recorded output, we’re struck by the ability to present the familiar with the adventurous and arrive at an elusive third element— a fearless combination of the two.
Case in point: Symington’s idiosyncratic hybrid of Afro-Latin, ska, and punk on Zookeeper’s “Mama Jean,” which swings but also kind of rocks. “We had tried to play that song live on numerous occasions, and I never settled on anything,” Cully says. “We recorded it at [frontman Chris Simpson’s] house, and that was the first time I ever played the groove like that. We just started playing, and that’s what turned up.”
There’s something vintage about Symington’s instinctual approach that harks back to a pre-digital era, when a musician’s individual voice was more highly valued than it generally is today. Whether it’s the blend of stick speed and heavy stomping on Zykos’s “What You Know” or the bouncy but pity-inspiring backbeat of Okkervil River’s “It Is So Nice to Get Stoned” (from the Golden Opportunities 2 release), the drummer adds vivid color to any song without washing out its main melody. In some cases, he sharpens and enriches the sonic images by laying cymbals, keys, or even loose pieces of metal on the skins. “Everything’s percussion,” Symington says. “I try to have a small setup but get the most out of it.”
“Cully is a powerful rock drummer, but there’s a surprising amount of subtlety in his playing,” says Jonathan Meiburg, frontman of the Sub Pop–signed art-pop/rock/ folk act Shearwater. “He’s such a slight framed guy, but he generates these tremendous sounds out of the drums. It’s like, ‘How are you doing that?’”
“Swing is integral to my songs, and Cully is a rare example of a power drummer who has swing,” Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli says. “He has great meter, hits ’em really hard, and figures out a part very easily. As a human being and as a musician, Cully is as good as they come.”
The twenty-eight-year-old’s skill and distinctive style seem to have always walked hand in hand with his inquisitiveness and work ethic. When he was just nine years old, Symington began taking lessons with educator and fellow Austinite Stephen Belans, a guru with whom he still keeps contact.
“Cully has a lot of talent,” Belans says. “But all the talent he’s amassed over the years is the result of hard work. He wasn’t one of those kids who could play anything effortlessly right out of the gate. It took sheer determination to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish.”
After working out his teenage aggressions on a Tama Rockstar kit, Symington looked to expand his horizons and sent an inquiry to jazz great “Rakalam” Bob Moses, with whom he’d study in the summer of 2003 in Boston. “I don’t know very many kids coming out of high school who want to seek out a mentor, especially one that might be out of reach,” Belans says. “Cully tried to make contact with a few guys. He sent letters off to Jack DeJohnette and Bob Moses, and he ended up working with Bob for a while. Cully was always on a quest to be as good as he could be.”
“Bob Moses has been a huge influence on the way I approach the instrument,” Symington says. “His book, Drum Wisdom, taught me how to practice. Moses really drove home the fact that playing drums is about playing music. The idea is to sing a melody with a particular resolution point in mind—for example, the 2 of the second bar of music—and then play a groove with it. You play the figure until it feels natural, and then you slowly begin to expand your vocabulary by setting up that pattern. It’s a very unscientific way of practicing, but it’s helpful in finding your own style.”
In time Symington has become nearly indispensable in the writing and recording processes of many of the projects he’s undertaken. “We were both on a session, double drumming, for Okkervil River’s record I Am Very Far,” Belans recalls of the highly orchestral atmosphere surrounding the making of the album. “I’ll be honest— it was a long day, and for one song, around take fifteen or sixteen, I’m thinking about dinner. But Cully never lost it. There was never a moment when the light was on that he wasn’t in the moment.”
Tim Kasher, guitarist and vocalist of the Nebraska-based emo/art rock band Cursive, says that Symington contributed heavily to the band’s 2012 concept album, I Am Gemini, a “psychodrama” diving into issues of multiple personality disorder. “Cully was really open to getting meticulous with arrangements,” Kasher says. “He really wanted to deconstruct [the music], lay it out, and put it back together in a fresh, new way. On one song, ‘The Sun and Moon,’ the verse is in 5/4, but Cully plays in 4/4. You’ll notice that at points in the song the snare alternates hitting on and off the 1. It took us a minute to get our heads around that.”
“I had never recorded an album like that,” says Symington, who estimates that he played more than 150 shows with Cursive prior to tracking I Am Gemini. “I actually used a lot of the same fills in many of those songs, because there was a common theme to the record.”
Recording or performing with Cursive one day, the Afghan Whigs the next day, psychedelic roots rockers Okkervil River the next—sometimes quite literally— would be enough to challenge the most focused of minds. Symington explains that he maintains rhythmic balance largely by feel. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t write out the drum parts,” he says. “I’ve always had a good memory when it comes to songs.”
Symington is adept at leaving his imprint on a track while meeting the needs of producers and songwriters. This was never more evident than during the recording of Shearwater’s 2012 effort, Animal Joy. When the band’s longtime drummer/percussionist, Thor Harris, was on the road with the reunited seminal cult band Swans, Symington and Jonathan Meiburg banged out demos and drum tracks in less than a week. Harris would rejoin Shearwater later in the production process, helping to create some unexpected rhythmic moments. The two drummers’ tracks commingle in songs such as the driving, gut-wrenching “You As You Were” and the epic, near-Asiatic “Insolence.”
“On ‘Insolence’ Cully did this weird thing where he was hitting the snare with brushes that looked like they were designed by a Neanderthal,” Meiburg recalls. “We had a huge amount of compression on the snare, and that’s why you get that rattling sound [makes fluttering noise]. When we were playing back [the drum performances] to hear which one worked best, we accidentally left both of them on. The decay on the reverb worked such that Thor’s part and Cully’s locked together. Thor was playing where Cully wasn’t, and vice versa. I remember being knocked out by that. We ended up using Cully’s very dry, upfront, strange rattling sound and, for the choruses, Thor’s groove. I think Danny [Reisch, producer] overdubbed a ride cymbal toward the end. So you have this kind of six-armeddrummer invention, but it doesn’t sound like it.”
Throughout the process of making Animal Joy, Meiburg remained open to many influences, mirroring Symington’s musical journey. The Frankenstein-esque tracks demonstrate how well Symington’s drumming slips into modern recording settings, and how vital a presence the drummer has become to Meiburg’s experimental production environment. Still, it all comes down to the song. “A lot of times I’ll never go back and listen to music I’ve recorded,” Cully says. “There are performances I’m proud of, but for me it’s more about amazing tunes. I think it’s cool if, at the end of the day, I can say, ‘I’m glad I got a chance to play on that song.’”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Symington plays a C&C Custom kit featuring a 14×24 bass drum, a 10×14 rack tom, and 16×16 and 16×18 floor toms (sometimes one or the other), with a 6 1/2×14 Ludwig Black Beauty snare. He uses 17″ hi-hats (usually a Zildjian K on top and Z Custom underneath), a 22″ Istanbul Agop crash, and either a 24″ Paiste Giant Beat or Istanbul Agop Xist ride. Cully employs a variety of Remo heads, including Coated Emperor tom batters and Coated Ambassador bottoms and Powerstroke bass drum batters. His sticks of choice are wood-tip Vater 5Bs.
When Symington is off the road, he uses Ted Reed’s Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer, Gary Chester’s The New Breed, and John Ramsay’s The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary as Taught by Alan Dawson as staples of his practice sessions.