On The Cover
His passionate call for artistic dissent may at first seem at odds with his tireless historical research. But everything Nerve’s drummer/leader does and says has a singular purpose: feeding the fire of boundless creativity.
Story by Adam Budofsky
Photos by Rahav Segev
Years from now, when those of us who save all our Modern Drummer issues dig back through the stack, we’ll be hard-pressed to identify a dominant “type” of artist who appeared on the cover during this era of the early twenty-first century. Back in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, MD covers generally featured players who fell into one of several prevalent categories: members of popular bands, studio pros, jazz players…. With the upheavals brought on by this century’s digital revolution, however, almost everybody who makes a living in the music industry has been forced to reexamine and to some extent reinvent his or her role in this mercurial environment, and typecasting has become less and less of a thing.
Drummers who saw the writing on the wall—and who carried a broad enough palette of paints to boldly splash their own positive narrative on top of the negative music-industry headlines—not only survive in this new reality but thrive in
it. Jojo Mayer is one such artist. In fact, many observers see him as the ultimate new-millennium rhythmatist, filled to the gills with physical prowess and in possession of a historian’s eye for the details of the past and a futurist’s ear for where the music can go. Fiercely independent, Mayer has carved out his own place in the modern music landscape by, among other things, reverse engineering the previously unimaginable rhythmic possibilities of digital production, translating them to the acoustic drumset, and spearheading a new style of fusion-with-a-small-f that has captured the imagination of drummers and non-drummers alike.
Late last year Mayer issued the second installment of his hugely influential Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer DVD series, dedicated to illuminating the history of what we do with our feet. (Part one did wonders for our hands.) And this year he put out Live in Europe, the first in-concert document by his band, Nerve. Somehow that release makes Nerve’s meld of human grooves and mechanical concepts seem even more astounding than the group’s handful of blistering studio recordings have. That the band incorporates large swaths of improvisation into its sets not only makes the tightness of Nerve’s onstage antics that much more remarkable, it pretty much blasts the word impossible out of any artist’s wildest creative imaginings. This is music that’s defiantly modern but also remarkably human. The name of the band is Nerve, after all—as you’ll learn in the following interview, Mayer is above all concerned with making connections and eliciting feelings. Yeah, he can pontificate with the best of them, as you’ll also see, but if you think it’s some sort of musical philosophy seminar he’s after with his art, you’ll be quite surprised.
The word nerve also connotes boldness, a willingness to ruffle feathers in the process of making a point and seeking truth and beauty. This you will certainly pick up on as well.
We spoke with Mayer in a downtown New York City café, just a few days after the release party for Secret Weapons Part II at the Cutting Room club, a couple dozen blocks north of where we were now sharing an espresso and thoughts of where the music has come from, and where it can go.
MD: For Secret Weapons II, how did you research the way drummers historically played the pedals?
Jojo: It was like putting together a puzzle that has pieces missing. But I had enough pieces to see, “Oh, it’s the Eiffel Tower,” you understand? It was necessary to create the theory of how people played back then, and the pedals give it away. That’s why I included the part in the DVD about the history of pedals. “Oh, they changed this. Something must have happened.” People began to play louder, etc. And between this, listening to the music, and getting some accounts from people, mostly second or third generation—“My teacher used to study with that guy,” or “Cozy Cole told me this”—you patch things together.
MD: It’s tough to find good footage of the early players.
Jojo: Buddy Rich was documented a lot because of who he was and what he did. And he provides a lot of information, because he was born at a time when he was able to see the original guys. Sanford Moeller, Billy Gladstone, George Lawrence Stone—they were in the orchestral pits in the theaters that his parents performed in.
Unfortunately, some things are very difficult to find out. Getting the history of the chain pedal with Al Duffy—I think I made fifty phone calls just to find out about that. But eventually I got it. And then I found this Saul Goodman timpani, which is also on the video.
MD: You’ve said that drummers aren’t as familiar with the mechanics of their instrument as other types of musicians are.
Jojo: When you start to play a trumpet, violin, or most other instruments, you have to get in touch with the physicalities of the instruments and create a relationship—how does it feel, how does it sound? Drummers have the luxury of striking the drum with a stick and something will happen, and that’s why they don’t know as much about their instruments as trumpet players or violinists or guitarists. We don’t usually pay attention until we start to develop calluses or carpal tunnel. Most drummers are completely mystified about the workings of their drums, and they fall prey to nonsensical notions.
I conclude in my historical chapter that the industry never aims to produce the best that they can produce—they produce the best that they can sell. If consumers put their money in quality, more quality will be there. If consumers put their focus on price points, that’s what will happen in the market. So a critical consumer serves the industry, because it’s more fun to make good stuff than to hustle for a cheaper price point. My pedal might not be for everyone, and that’s totally fine. I just wanted an alternative to what’s already out there.
MD: One of the great things about your Sonor Perfect Balance pedal doesn’t have anything to do with its performance. It’s the fact that you thought of pragmatic things like easy fold-up.
Jojo: That’s why they made the first pedal collapsible, because drummers need to get around. The industry is not paying enough attention to the working drummer. It puts the focus on the garage drummer—understandably, but it’s unfortunate.
Let’s just look at hardware. Who needs a boom stand anymore? Boom stands were invented to suspend, like, a 22″ China cymbal above a 14″/15″ concert-tom configuration. Who plays that anymore? And boom stands don’t sound good. Straight stands sound much better, because you get a deviation of energy with heavy stands. I use single-braced hardware.
MD: What’s your feeling on suspension mounts on toms?
Jojo: Now, that’s good. The best system is the original RIMS. However, most of the time I’ve had a problem with drums having too much sustain. I want less. I want a kunk—a good, chesty, resonant sound.
MD: One of your themes is working with gear in the most efficient way possible, including this idea of minimizing friction on the bass drum pedal board. I love that you tack a leather sole onto your sneaker. But…
Jojo: I know where you want to go with this.
Jojo: Yeah, I tried ball bearings, but with them there’s the weight consideration. And I tried to do stuff with things like Teflon. But Teflon is hazardous because it’s toxic, and it wears off. I’m about things that make sense, and the leather sole is fine. All those guys back in the day used to play with them. Gym shoes were not considered street wear until the late ’50s, when James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized them. And the dress code for drummers was dress shoes, so up until the mid-’60s drummers played with leather soles, and their technique—they were all sliding on the pedals. Sonny Payne and Buddy and all those guys who had ridiculous foot technique, they were all using leather soles.
MD: In your DVD you allow for the opposite of what is usually preached in terms of hitting the bass drum, which is that you need to play off the head. Sometimes you want the sound produced when you keep the beater against the head, though.
Jojo: It’s a good sound. I’m about choice, about curiosity, about evolution. Not dogma. I’m absolutely for breaking the rules—but you have to know what the rules are.
MD: I got pushback once from some drummers when I was excited about a used single-headed Slingerland kit I’d bought.
Jojo: Yeah, I remember those, with the silver strip on the bottom of the shell. A lot of that is fear. What’s so scary about being playful? I don’t like to work—I wanna play. Unfortunately, the road to playing involves some shedding, some work.
MD: At the release party for Secret Weapons II, you said that when you started playing off the bass drum head, you found that your balance was compromised. Just the fact that you said that was encouraging to the rest of us.
Jojo: Oh, I made so many mistakes. I had to trouble-shoot them, and that’s why I know what I’m talking about. The road to clarity is bumpy. It was hard.
This was after Freddie Gruber showed me the constant-release technique. I started practicing and something terrible happened—I couldn’t do it anymore. And then I lost my confidence about playing the way I used to play. I had a
studio session and the bass drum sounded really bad—brrrrrp-brrrrp-brrrrrp. I called up Freddie: “Man, my shit is messed up. I need another lesson.” And Freddie was like, “I’m not your nanny! You had the best lesson; just do what I told you!” And you know what? He was right. I just needed more time.
That’s the thing about Freddie that I think a lot of people didn’t understand. I had two lessons with him, and Freddie didn’t give you solutions. He certainly didn’t give them to me. He gave you riddles. And if you solved the riddle, then you owned it. I own Freddie’s blueprints, because I had to work very hard at it. And I think that was his intention. He had disdain for a lot of young players, though. “There are guys out there that if I show them certain techniques, they’ll play rubbish music with it.” The worst thing you could do with Freddie was walk up to him and ask for a technique lesson. He would hate that.
MD: I’ve noticed a kind of disconnect with some metal drummers. Despite how heavy the music is, as their parts become more complicated, they physically move less and less. But one of the fun things about watching drummers is seeing how physically they play. Their heads move, their shoulders move, even if a lot of that stuff doesn’t technically have anything to do with accomplishing a musical goal. You obviously have an immense amount of physical control, but you emote as well.
Jojo: Let me give you something, because I think I know where this has to go. With math rock, there are some interesting guys out there. Let’s take Zach Hill. He could be mistaken for someone who cannot play. But that guy has a certain deepness to him that I have to say, “Wow, this is cool. This is not the type of music that I would play, but I can see that this guy is plugged into something current. This is art.”
MD: His playing is very idiosyncratic.
Jojo: Yes, it is what it is. I don’t know where he’s coming from. I’ve never met him. But no matter how you set up your kit, whether you play open-handed or not—none of that matters. What matters is the effect that you create in other people.
I had a key experience when I started to work in electronic music. No electronic producer would ever be impressed by a display of speed, because he can just turn a knob. So I started to think about the effect that speed has, not speed itself. That changed my playing. If I play something really fast, a drummer’s mind might be blown: How many hours did he have to put in to get that fast? That is not my concern anymore. If I generate speed, it’s because I want to trigger an emotional reaction in people, and not just drummers.
Let me share something. I’ve gotten different levels of feedback from audiences, from standing ovations to apathy. Some of the strongest reactions I’ve gotten are not because I did something extremely difficult, but I simply dropped my stick and acknowledged to them, Oh, I dropped my stick, and reached for another—just sharing that with the audience. He’s one of us—he’s a human being. He made a mistake and acknowledges it. Of course I don’t want to miss a cue, but honesty goes a long way. So what I’m saying is, if I can trigger inspiration by doing something as simple as acknowledging that I made a mistake, I shall not be afraid of making mistakes anymore.
MD: You mentioned at the Cutting Room that at some point you made the decision to be a leader. Was that based
on specific experiences?
Jojo: It’s not that I didn’t enjoy playing with other people. I just understood that my nature is to be a leader, not a sideman. Being a sideman, you must care about the music, no matter how bad the circumstances are. I was getting tired of dealing with the psychological aspects of having to deal with certain egos, just to keep myself out there. I have something to say that’s unique, and I needed something where I didn’t need to show my résumé, who I played for, to get attention. There are
15 million people living in this city. All I need is a platform to communicate with them directly.
MD: Your TED talk got into this idea of expression in modern music lying somewhere between 0 and 1. Can you elaborate on that?
Jojo: As I exposed myself to more programmed music, I became more aware of the contrasts between electronic media and real-time playing. If you’re a jazz drummer, you only live in a real-time world, so you don’t have the contrast. But I was exposed to the premeditated medium of programmed music. The contrast creates the tension. And I understood that this is something that we should cultivate and be aware of.
MD: That’s something that didn’t exist twenty years ago, drummers manipulating time in a way that seems to be the opposite of the trance effect.
Jojo: If you’re referring to the J DIlla type of programming with the glitchy beats that kind of don’t line up, that sound like mistakes, that creates a feel and can be as trancey as something that’s slick. This is like drinking wine. If you’re a connoisseur of food or wine, you are going to get bored of slick tastes. You want something that invigorates you or challenges you—Oh, there’s this new type of pepper, or I like the way this lime mixes with ginger and this other type of pepper. You become more refined and have more interesting taste.
MD: Pursuing these ideas can be too far removed from some people’s comfort zones.
Jojo: Yeah, well, life starts outside of the comfort zone.
MD: Speaking of that, you mentioned singing as one of the things you’re focusing on now. Singing and dancing aren’t talked about enough in relation to drumming.
Jojo: Well, they belong together. A lot of music is dance music. To have a drummer sitting in the trenches and realizing that I was playing five over four or whatever is nice and flattering, but if a girl gets up and dances, that’s a compliment of the highest order. You can’t be more honest than that. Totally fine with me.
MD: How about the singing?
Jojo: It’s an adventure. I grew up with the notion that I am a terrible singer, but then I was like, that’s a bad excuse not to sing. I have a talent for music, so I should be able to find a solution to be able to sing. I’m not ready to let it out of the bag yet. But it’s self-discovery and it helps my drumming. It’s very interesting, because I’m able to tap into something that I knew all my life and see it from a completely different angle. I’m trying to retain a sense of innocence, like, Wow, I can observe myself learning. I’m teacher and student in one person. It’s kinda cool, frustrating sometimes.
MD: Hearing yourself back?
Jojo: Oh, God.
MD: I tried to sing one of my own songs a while back, and somehow I automatically fell into this British accent. I went with it, but I still sort of squirm when I listen back.
Jojo: Well, the hardest thing is to be yourself. I used to be into the martial arts, and Bruce Lee, who had chops for a thousand years, once said that you can be cocky, you can be all sorts of things, but to express yourself honestly is very hard to do. That’s when you tap into the nature of music and sharing. Getting back to my deciding not to be a sideman anymore, I had learned that some people who were accomplished, rich, and famous could also be miserable and living in hell. Then there are people who are truly inspiring, and you’re like, what makes the difference?
Becoming a leader, I started figuring out that the exchange between the artist and audience is kind of like the exchange of love between mother and infant. There’s two types of love: conditional and unconditional. The love of the mother toward the child is unconditional because it’s evolutionarily motivated: You want to keep your DNA going. The love of the kid to the mother is conditional, because the kid, even though it knows very little, does know that without the attention of the mother it will starve or freeze to death or whatever. So the kid becomes manipulative by smiling or crying, so that the mother gives the kid what it wants.
With the artist and the audience it’s exactly the same thing. Some artists are in the position of the child, and they long for approval, which is applause. Without applause, they’re scared to death, and they’ll do anything to get approval. They will even become someone else. They’ll lie to themselves. And there are iconic people who have changed the world that were like this, and they ended up on the path of self-destruction. Then there’s other people who are in the position of the mother.
They just give. “This is what I have. I can’t lie to you. I know that not everybody’s going to like it.” And those are the people you want to be around. Those are the truly great people.
MD: It seems that the disposition of most people is that they don’t want to be a leader.
Jojo: That’s fine.
MD: But then where do they go with it? Some musicians aren’t even that interested in having an original voice on their instrument. It’s not one of the things they strive for.
Jojo: Well, there are alpha people and betas, and we need both. It can’t be a world full of alphas. I’m an alpha male, and I have to surrender to it. But I need people that I can share my concerns with. I need warriors that go with me, and some people do not want to do that, because there are pros and cons to any position. Being a leader has its drawbacks and advantages; the sideman thing does too. I’m responsible for my sidemen. Nerve really is a band now, though. John [Davis, bass player] is an equal partner, which is fantastic. We share responsibilities—I do more of that, he does more of this. It’s a perfect symbiosis. He’s glad he doesn’t have to do my job and I’m glad I don’t have to do his.
MD: Electronic culture has obviously influenced your music making. It has also affected the way you do business.
To what extent?
Jojo: We should not become machinelike in order to live with machines. Robots were invented to do the dirty work so
we can enjoy life and have an espresso. Unfortunately it’s been shown that Twitter is more addictive than nicotine, and Facebook makes people depressed because you create an avatar of who you are, and by doing that you create a currency, a tangible for how popular in society you are: I have 300 likes, I have 3,000 likes…. So people get completely isolated and lonelier than ever.
But I must say, as a professional tool, the social networks have given me independence from what’s left of the music industry. For the first time I’m actually making money with my recordings, because of all the people who follow Nerve, 25 percent buy everything we do. And it doubles every year.
At this point I’m completely independent from old protocol. The only ways that I’m still connected to old protocol is by doing interviews like this or by having Hudson distribute my DVD. I’m completely independent, and it works, because no label can offer me anything I don’t have or won’t have two years from now. The reason I do interviews is because it’s an opportunity to voice my concern. Yes, I am successful. I have no economic worries. The days of struggle, economically speaking, are behind me. I’m living the dream. I’m feeling extremely happy and thankful that I can do this. But my story is one of dissent, of not doing it the way everyone else does it.
I can afford to be honest, and I want to encourage people to take initiative and say, “This is who I am.” I’m also a very self-critical person, and being self-confident is a long process. You bump your head many times. And then maybe you become overconfident and you get hurt. Maybe I’m not that good yet. And I got cocky, and boom, I’m presented with a bill. [laughs] So it’s a long process. At this point, I understand a couple things, looking at the world the way it is and being like, Yes, I’m reclaiming the shamanistic power of drums. I want to be able to speak to the next generation and be like, “It’s up to you to grab it!” Just be confident. Don’t listen too much to the old protocol, which is still here, like a big noise. But it will evaporate.
I have big hopes in the seven-year-olds and the nine-year-olds, waking up to become people. I think that they are going to be better than my generation and the one before mine. You know, we’re a disappointment. We were handed over a legacy from the Beatles and James Brown and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Hendrix and all this amazing stuff. And what have we handed over to the next generation? Very little. In the music world at least. But look at someone like Banksy—now there’s a hero. That’s a guy who figured it out. I’m waiting to find someone who does to music what he did to art. It’s possible. It’s just a paradigm shift.
MD: At the DVD release party, you used the analogy of a monkey in a box to communicate the idea that in order to move forward, we have to let some things go. Does that extend explicitly to drumming?
Jojo: Do you know the John Bonham logo, the three circles that intersect? Those three circles I see as the physical or technical world, or the body; the conceptual world, or the mind—the choices; and the emotional world. There are areas where those three areas overlap, but you can also separate them.
Now, say there’s a drummer who’s ready to emote and share his feelings but is technically unable to execute his ideas. He’s going to be frustrated. Now let’s say there’s a drummer who has a meticulous understanding of the physics of his instrument and a very good concept, but he cannot emote. He will only be interesting to other drummers. He’s going to be a clinician. He’s going to do incredible things, but your girlfriend is going to go out and grab a coffee and meet you after. [laughs] Then maybe you have technical or body understanding and you are ready to emote, but you have no concept. You’re going to become a clone of somebody who’s already out there. And you’re going to miss authenticity, which is very important.
So, all of us have to allow ourselves to be honest and aware of our emotions. We want to share these things with someone else, so we have to put them into some sort of structure so people can understand it. And then we need technique to do it. So in the process you make acquisitions of knowledge. You process this, but then you have to let things go, because you cannot be everything. You cannot be Jack DeJohnette and John Bonham and Stewart Copeland and Elvin Jones. But you can simplify and find clarity, and you find clarity when you remove things and you spend time with simple things.
To paraphrase Gustav Mahler, who said one of my favorite things about music, “Don’t pray to the ashes, pass on the fire.” When we talk about that fire, it’s in Mozart, it’s in Beethoven, it’s in Louis Armstrong, it’s in Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, the Beatles, Fats Domino, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Aphex Twin, the Chemical Brothers—it’s always the same. And this is what I’m trying to capture. I can be a body for that to be shared, like the shade of a lamp that diffuses the light, so that people are not blinded by it but illuminated by it.
Now, everybody figured those things out way before we were born. It’s just our job to find our own solutions. And what illuminates must bear burning, so sometimes it’s painful and frustrating. Dealing with those things, that’s when it becomes complicated. And then you add the element of having to make money at it to support yourself—it’s going to make it extremely complicated. Anyone who promises you, “Do it this way and you’re going to be fine”…there are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there, and maybe even people who sell you snake oil but don’t realize that it’s snake oil. But it is. It’s a jungle out there.
What I’m trying to do is show people that you can be honest and you don’t have to have fear. One of the things about this monkey in the box is that he’s afraid of starving. People are careful, and that’s not how you go about things. You must be enthusiastic, you must be a warrior. This is how I like things to be. That’s what rock ’n’ roll is all about, and that’s what jazz is all about. I’m only interested in that fire, not in the ashes. Unfortunately that fire isn’t in rock ’n’ roll anymore or in jazz anymore, because those art forms have expired their capacity to hold the fire of the present. So everything that I do is an attempt at being authentic, and as much as I love jazz and rock, it’s just that the time has passed to surrender those aesthetics. They’re hollow for the most part.
I don’t want approval from my heroes. It’s nice if I get it. But I want approval from the next generation by opening a door for them. That’s very important. And our generation has been so selfish, being handed down that legacy from Miles and Coltrane and all those guys. I think it’s time for the people who are in the position to open doors, so we can witness the next generation make good shit again.
MD: Music where we have no idea what it’s going to sound like.
Jojo: Exactly. And not go, “Oh, man, there’s no rock ’n’ roll.” Rock ’n’ roll will not sound like rock ’n’ roll. That’s not going to happen. But it’s fine—we can still play the old music and honor it. It’s important to understand the history and honor it. But show me something that gives me something a Monk record can give me.
MD: Maybe one of the reasons people still get excited about a new Zeppelin box set is because they see a lack of leadership among their own peers. They want their father figures. More Ramones T-shirts are being worn today than when the band existed.
Jojo: Yeah, and that’s absurd. Where CBGB used to be is a John Varvatos flagship store selling leather jackets for $3,000. It’s the opposite of rock ’n’ roll. Not to say it’s bad design; it’s good design. But this is a youth culture that disguises mass consumerism as rebellion. And they disguise conformism as individuality. That’s why I’m saying that we need artists to make people see what’s really going on. And I have an ulterior motive for that. I’d love to live in a better world with more culture and more concern. So that’s why I do what I do.
To bring it back to the drums, I don’t want to inspire a generation of garage drummers who are able to pull off incredible four-way-coordination stuff, because we have seen that it hasn’t given birth to anything cultural. It’s kind of like cars with five wheels. We have to bring it back to the nature of…not mathematics, but the guts of drumming.
MD: In what ways can you do that on a practical level?
Jojo: You can look at the paradiddle, for instance. If you practice a paradiddle as a coordination exercise, everything that will come out of playing a paradiddle will sound like a coordination exercise. But look at a paradiddle as a melody. It’s a very simple melody, only two notes. But once you surrender to thinking of it that way, melodies will come out of paradiddles,
not mathematics. What you practice is not as important as how you practice. Your mindset. If you go about things in a mathematical way, it will always sound mathematical. So be aware of those things.
Now, when we’re talking about Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer, we’re talking about physics, the circle in the Bonham logo that is the body. Whether we’re talking 5,000 years ago or 5,000 years from now, if I were to pick up that pepper shaker and drop it, it would fall to the floor. There are certain things that will not change, because we are talking about physical attributes. As I say in the introduction of the video, I am not a technique snob. Technique is just a method to achieve any desired effect. If you can create that effect, it’s fine. If you create that effect and you hurt yourself, maybe there’s a better solution. That’s my approach to technique.
MD: The beauty is that the very building blocks of your videos is self-analysis: seeing what your body does, either naturally or out of habit or imitation, deciding for yourself whether that’s the best way to go from point A to point B, and if not, here’s another way. There’s really no baggage to your approach. We get to see how you play, obviously, but if we took your performances out of it, your method is still valid.
Jojo: I simply want to make drummers more critical, give them more than just a method but a blueprint of how to observe things. That’s the invisible byproduct you get with Secret Weapons. You acquire a tool of observing yourself, which is something that’s very underdeveloped with a lot of students—and teachers.
The most important thing an artist can do today is light a fire and calibrate people’s perception so they become curious again. Because without curiosity we’re going to turn into executives of something. We become robotic consumers. So that’s what I want to do, ignite curiosity. And the curiosity will be the antidote to frustration—because you are going to hurt, you’re going to get tired and frustrated because you won’t be able to go as fast as you want to. But the curiosity, that’s going to keep you going.