Brazilian Girls’ Aaron Johnston

With his rudimental training, skillful electronic programming, and vast international influences, this New York City–based multi-instrumentalist and producer represents the future of drumming as well as anyone who comes to mind.

Story by Henri Benard
Photos by David Baren Photography and Matt Condon
Listen to Aaron Johnston’s playing with the Brooklyn-based modern-world-pop band Brazilian Girls for even a short time, and you can immediately detect a world of rhythmic influences, from Africa to India to Cuba to Brazil to Indonesia to the Middle East. But Johnston isn’t just a style-hopper. He intrinsically understands the nuances of songcraft and consistently plies his skills—including a flawless and playful use of multiple-bounce rudiments—to great effect, crafting engaging, dance-floor-ready beats that push forward the group’s stylistic turns.

Growing up in Kansas, Johnston spent many hours listening to everything from George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley and the Beatles to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and Earth, Wind and Fire, all blasting from a jukebox that his Southern-bred father restored. It was only the beginning of the development of the uniquely diverse musical palette that he draws from today, not only with Brazilian Girls—who are releasing their long-awaited new album this year—but with a wide range of other artists.

Following his music studies at Wichita State University, Johnston moved to the West Coast and worked with Desmond Child, the Pete Escovedo Orchestra, Darol Anger’s Heritage project featuring Willie Nelson and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Andy Narell, and Omar Sosa. After moving to New York in 1998, the drummer landed gigs with Natalie Merchant, Harry Belafonte, Angelique Kidjo, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Thalia, among others. Today he divides his time between Brazilian Girls; side gigs with multi-instrumentalist Clark Gayton (Bruce Springsteen, Sting), Brian Mitchell (Levon Helm), Scott Sharrard (Gregg Allman Band), and Avi Bortnick (John Scofield); the electronic Afrobeat group Shitty Shitty Jam Band; the acoustic rock band California; and work as a DJ and producer.

We begin our conversation on the topic of Brazilian Girls’ recently released single, “The Critic.”

MD: “The Critic” features elements of your playing that can be heard as far back as the cut “Me Gustas Cuando Callas,” from Brazilian Girls’ self-titled 2005 debut album: the tough groove, the upbeat snare accents, the prominent use of double-stroke rolls, and the creative tom and cymbal work. How did that song come about?

Aaron: “The Critic” started with a loop, that midrange African/blues bass riff that you hear at the beginning of the song. I have great love for African rhythms, so I immediately was hearing an Afrobeat-meets-’50s-two-beat kind of vibe for that track.

MD: Do you have a general approach to writing beats with Brazilian Girls?

Aaron: Brazilian Girls developed out of a club that had many great DJs. We were hearing dance music, and we wanted people to dance and have a good time. So with most of this music I’m thinking, Get people to dance. Quite often there are loops happening, something steady like a house beat, so I’m free to be melodic with that and to play like a percussionist and not just a drummer that has to be the timekeeper.


MD: What in your background inspires your worldly beats and rudiment-oriented fills?

Aaron: My mother had all her kids play piano by age seven, and by the time I was eight or nine I took up the drum. I say drum because my first drum teacher, Jerry Reiman, had me learn the twenty-six standard rudiments up to a certain tempo before graduating to the drumkit.

In junior high I got into jazz. I was very fortunate to have some amazing teachers: Jerry Reiman, who also led the junior high band; then Gary Stroud, who led the high school jazz band; and then Todd Strait, who I took drum lessons from later. Todd introduced me to amazing jazz drummers like Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Art Blakey.

Then in my later years of high school and into college I became very interested in world music: music from Africa, India, Cuba, and Brazil, gamelan and Sufi music—all kinds of stuff—which led me to play more percussion, like congas and pandeiro. I’ve been fortunate to play with bands where I’m the only American in the band. African, Cuban, Brazilian music—that’s the best schooling you can get. So between all that and being taught proper technique, I’ve been able to adapt to rhythms and styles from around the globe. Then I just close my eyes and let things come out in my own way.

For me, drums and percussion go hand in hand. I love both, and they help one another. I was able to study in school and practice a lot, so that gave me the technique on a lot of hand percussion instruments. In fact, there was about a two-year span in college when I was gigging more on vibraphone and hand percussion than I was on a drumkit. My university professor, Dr. J.C. Combs, was a fantastic teacher and percussionist—not so much of a traps player, although he could play—so that threw me more into learning mallets and hand percussion, which I’m grateful for. Today I do studio work both on drums and on percussion. I’m also programming, producing, singing, and playing keys at times.

“Woman in the Red”

MD: The new song “Woman in the Red” is another slamming track—you’re driving the bus fast and wild all day. Is that a mix of programmed and acoustic drums?

Aaron: When I recorded that track we had a very basic loop at first—four on the floor with a backbeat—so there is doubling with the kick and snare of the loop plus my live take, heavy on the floor toms.

MD: How did you go about getting the huge drum tones?

Aaron: Because of the low, gritty bass synthesizer part, I decided to tune the drums about as low as I could where they still had tone.

MD: Were there any special recording techniques used to get that warm, deep, resonant sound of the snare?

Aaron: The snare was a 6.5″ Ludwig Black Beauty with a Coated Ambassador batter, with a wallet on it. I do the wallet trick a lot. What’s interesting about putting a wallet on the snare is that every time you hit the snare, the wallet jumps up a tiny bit, which gives a gated effect. At the same time it doesn’t choke the sound of the snare, like putting gels or tape on it would. I generally have three basic snare sounds: one open, one with the wallet, and one with a thin handkerchief tied to the side so I can flip it on and off.

MD: When do you feel you understood what it means to truly be “in the pocket”? And can you comment on the importance of nailing the pocket as a pro?

Aaron: I think all music has a pocket, even if it’s not dance music. There’s a feel and a groove to everything. Number one, you want to be connected to the musicians with whom you’re playing. As a drummer, you want it to feel good and make the other musicians on stage relaxed, so you’d better be relaxed. That doesn’t always mean being a metronome, though. That’s actually boring. By the time I got out of college I was way into jazz and free jazz, and it was all about having an internal clock but not really ever showing it. I loved playing around the beat. As I grew older, I learned that if you want to be a working drummer, paying your bills with music, you need to lay shit down for people and make it feel right. That’s not as easy as we think, but it’s important for being a working professional drummer. When you put the notes in the right place, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing on a shitty drumset, or on a bucket, or even on the ground with a tree branch—it’s going to sound and, more importantly, feel great.

Right-Hand Technique

MD: Could you describe your signature right-hand hi-hat technique? It sounds like a single-handed 16th-note triplet.

Aaron: I remember as a kid seeing Buddy Rich do this crazy move on the hi-hat, and I wanted to do that. I never figured it out, but in the meantime I invented my own method. It’s just a way to get double the notes with one hand. You can do it on the ride, hi-hat, or anything you can reach with both ends of the stick. There’s a certain technique that African drummers use; you can see it in the left hand of military drummers, which became traditional grip. But it’s not traditional grip; it’s more like a German grip, but the movement of the arm is different, where you’re using more of the shoulder and not the wrist. It’s hard to explain, but imagine you’re turning the key to the ignition of a car, but with the stick in your hand. It’s a certain muscle that has to be built, but once you get the power it’s very effective for being able to play 16th notes in one hand and therefore keep the other hand free to do as you please. [This technique] works well with jungle/drum ’n’ bass music.

Geeking Out for Fun and Profit

MD: Besides the new Brazilian Girls music coming out this year, is there anything else special that you’ve been working on?

Aaron: I recently moved into a killer studio in Brooklyn, where I’ll be continuing remote drum tracking and production. I’ve been doing this for many people over the past several years, from Paris, South America, and even Lebanon! I love the whole process of recording drums: finding the right sound and how it fits into the track, the right combination of microphones and preamps, mic placement—all that geeky stuff. And I love the challenge of someone sending me music and me sending back a fully produced drum track that fits perfectly in the mix sonically, and in terms of groove and arrangement.

Tools of the Trade

Aaron Johnston has an ever-evolving setup, but his core kit is a custom-made Ludwig Classic Maple set featuring a 12″ tom, 16″ and 18″ floor toms, and an 18×20 bass drum. His two main snares are a 6.5×14 Ludwig Acrolite and a 3.5×12 Tama Hammered Steel. “I asked Ludwig to send me their Classic Maple kit with nothing on it—no lugs, no finish, just bare shells,” Johnston says. “Then I had my close friend Petar Timotic paint the drums and then finish them. They came out beautiful and original, and to my ears they sound even better, maybe because of the love put in.”

Johnston’s cymbals include 14″ Bosphorus Master Vintage hi-hats and a coveted 24″ Turkish K. “In my setup with Brazilian Girls I’ve always just used one crash/ride and a hi-hat—that’s it,” Aaron explains. “I do this because too many cymbals create too much wash and too many overtones. There are already many layers happening in this music, so I try for everything to find its place in the frequency spectrum. I also tend to use dark cymbals for a similar reason, especially during recording. Back in the day bright cymbals worked, because recording to tape chilled out the high end and smoothed it out nicely. In the digital world, I like to use dark cymbals and ribbon mics to get closer to the warmth that tape would give.”

Johnston uses a Roland SPD-SX sample pad, Vic Firth Extreme 5A sticks, and Remo heads.

Aaron Johnston is available for drum lessons via Skype or in person. He can be reached through aaronjohnstonmusic.com and via email at [email protected]