Widely lauded as the drummer with the iconic indie-rock band, he’s recently released a career-spanning box set focusing on his revolutionary Drums and Drones project. Can we get micro for a minute?
Students and drum aficionados: Brian Chase should demand your attention. He is the rare musician who’s as much at home drumming behind the ecstatic yawp of punk legends the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as he is jousting with the cream of New York City’s improvising coterie. Perhaps less well known is his revolutionary work in the world of drum tuning.
Utilizing concepts of just intonation and mining the drum’s elemental sounds for compositional inspiration, Chase has generated a new acoustic map of the drums’ resonances and capabilities. He’s harnessed this work into a decade’s worth of recordings on the three-volume set Drums and Drones, recently released with an accompanying book on his own Chaikin Records label. Adventurous listeners should pick it up right away.
As a child, Chase learned to read music at the same time he was learning to read books. Stints with local youth orchestras and individual study with John Miceli and Justin DiCioccio followed. At the Oberlin Conservatory of Music he worked closely with Michael Rosen and Greg Bandy. After college, employment at the Carroll Music percussion department and volunteering at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House sound and light installation cultivated his growing interest into more esoteric realms of tuning drums.
“Brian’s technical excellence doesn’t hamper his intuitive playing,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O tells Modern Drummer. “I think that’s the holy grail, when you can be both insanely skilled and free as a player.” Bandmate Nick Zinner adds, “Brian is the most unusual and versatile drummer I’ve played with, able to crush any style and do as much or as little as is required for the music.”
Chase’s dedication to the instrument does not end with his extraordinary k it playing. His Ashtanga yoga practice feeds directly into his posture and body awareness at the drumset. He’s also rekindled his Jewish spirituality in the last decade, and we talk a little bit about how it has influenced his life and playing in the following interview.
These elements of serious study might suggest a man at odds with the good-humored person familiar to his friends and bandmates. Says Karen O, “Brian’s an eccentric, an altruist, a patient man, a silly man, a holy man, a loyal friend, and of course the greatest drummer of all time.” Chase also has a heroic sweet tooth. I’ve seen him eat a meal of desserts more than a few times.
This article is the result of a few wide-ranging discussions that occurred over the course of a few months in person and over email. Chase is open but typically laconic, so this interview was a special opportunity to hear about his playing and compositional philosophies.
MD: Let’s start with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When the band began in the early 2000s, you were playing a couple of shows a month. How often did you rehearse, and what were those rehearsals like?
Brian: We rehearsed just enough to be able to do the show. [laughs] The most important thing was the spirit of the music and preserving that. I mean, it’s rock ’n’ roll. Any technical concerns or sloppiness take a major back seat to energy and fun. It comes from growing up as a fan of punk and rock ’n’ roll and appreciating that spirit and seeing it as completely credible. Amateurism is a good balance to perfectionism.
MD: Was that consciously approached or discussed as a group?
Brian: Not overtly. But I’d say we all shared a love of New York punk rock—the Ramones, the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, and others. We felt the power of that music.
MD: Seeing you live at the Governors Ball Music Festival a few months ago, the performance was just as exciting as those early shows. To what do you attribute that?
Brian: There’s definitely a spark that all three of us share that we light up when we get together. We have it individually in our own ways, but then when we combine, it feels really powerful. It was there at the beginning, and we still honor it. At the same time, the songs are unusual, but they’re really catchy. Karen as a front woman is of course very distinctive and really powerful. She carries a great spirit with her.
MD: I’d love to talk about how you create beats.
Brian: A lot of the early songs started as demos from Nick and Karen. Nick would often add a drum machine, and I would use that as a starting point. “Bang” and “Maps” were like that. I would adapt according to the song.
MD: I always found that while technically your beats are really challenging, I never thought that your ego was dictating them.
Brian: The music would dictate the parts in a lot of ways. I’ve developed my drum parts by thinking in simultaneous rhythmic layers. To give an example of what I mean, let’s say I’m playing a basic beat that goes with the song. At the same time, I’ll hear a subsidiary beat that will complement it. Sometimes it’s a counter rhythm; sometimes it’s a reinforcement. I’ll hear that rhythm in my head, and it’s directly related to the original beat. I’ll often refer to those counter rhythms as a way to offer variety and difference. In some ways it’s like counterpoint in terms of composition or harmony or layers of instruments. It’s orchestral. Sometimes that layer can be another beat, or sometimes there could be additional rhythmic layers. They all trace back to this fundamental beat.
MD: Can you give an example of a song where this might happen?
Brian: There are a few hi-hat patterns that come to mind. In “Maps” there’s a left-foot hi-hat pattern that comes in on the second verse. It’s an addendum that adds color. Also in the song “Pin” from Fever to Tell, the way the hi-hat pattern comes in with that main beat, it sounds more like a layer to me than a normal straight hi-hat pattern.
Another way I think of writing parts relates to jazz. In a jazz setting, the pianist is responsible for the comping behind the soloist. It’s the same thing with drums when we use the left hand to “comp” behind the soloist. The pianist is there to complement the soloist. We find the spaces and support the solo as it builds or a composition as it develops.
MD: In the context of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, are you comping behind Karen’s voice?
Brian: Primarily. If a basic beat is being played, then there’s a whole layer of rhythmic possibilities that are existing at the same time that aren’t being played. So if there’s a pianist playing on top of the basic beat to support what’s happening in the vocals, the pianist would be doing these other variations—more complex and subtle things. I’m hearing drums perform that kind of function.
A lot of my instincts come from my jazz background and improvising. The drummer has to support the soloist as things are building! That opens another world of accents and variety that are not based off of a straight beat.
MD: Can you expand on that thought?
Brian: I feel like in rock music there are a lot of established rules that put people in a box sometimes. Kick on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, cymbals play 8th notes…. That’s okay, it’s a good starting point, but often times it doesn’t serve the music in the best way. As long as the rhythmic ideas are based on supporting and complementing the music, they’ll work more often than not.
MD: That reminds me of Junior Kimbrough’s drummer, Kent “Kinney” Kimbrough. On the tune “You Better Run,” he’s crashing on the 2, on the 4, on the 3, but never on the 1. It’s insane, but it works.
Brian: Totally. In jazz it’s pretty common to extend a phrase over the bar line or end it short. Not ending a phrase on 1 can be really effective. In the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ song “Zero,” coming out of the bridge, there’s a moment where I hit the crash on the 2, with the snare. What that does is extend the phrase into the next measure. It keeps the momentum building rather than stopping square on the 1.
MD: Let’s talk about Drums and Drones. Why has it been such a fruitful path for you?
Brian: The move to Drums and Drones was as an extension of the way I was hearing the capabilities of drums. Due to my background as an improvisor and jazz musician, I’ve often heard the drums as a melodic instrument as well as a rhythmic one. In jazz, drums also have the responsibility of expressing melody. But the way melody works with the drums is very different from the way it does with another instrument. To give an example, with a piano you play a melody by playing different keys, but in drums you just have one drum. So how is melody expressed by playing one drum? It’s completely possible.
One typical way in the jazz world has been through phrasing—rhythmic phrasing that suggests melody. Papa Jo Jones and Philly Joe Jones were masters of rhythmic phrasing. Papa Jo started playing multiple tones on one drum. He did a lot of hand muting stuff back in the ’50s and earlier. In my own playing I would ask myself, How do I express melody through one drum, or through a four-piece kit?
MD: So there’s a matter of creating solutions for the “problem” of playing melodies on a four-piece.
Brian: Yes. A lot of it is through creating or suggesting different tones and playing with shading and dynamics. As an improvising musician, I was hearing all these different tones within one drum. If I hit the drum in the middle I get one sound, if I hit it towards the end I get another one, and if I do a rimshot I get another set of tones. I would use that for my expressive palette. Then when I started working at the Dream House and getting into just intonation, the tuning theory gave me a framework for understanding how overtones functioned in the resonance of a drum. Now all of a sudden I had an understanding of all the different tones that exist within the sound of a drum and all the degrees in between. The Drums and Drones project began as a way to investigate all of those subtle tones. I started to develop compositions that explored these different areas of that tonal color.
MD: The definition of experimental music!
Brian: Totally. A lot of trial and error. But then I would find the pieces and capture it in a recording or use it as a basis for performance.
MD: A close focus on drum overtones and acoustic sound doesn’t seem to have been done in quite this way before.
Brian: It was pretty fun because it felt so fresh, but it also required a lot of work and experimentation to develop my techniques and methods. The only way to do it was to just start doing it and figure it out.
MD: What does your creative practice related to the drums involve these days?
Brian: Well, it’s a lot different from how it used to be. Especially with having a kid, regular practice is almost nonexistent. But I’m working on music in some form pretty much every day. Music is still engrained in my life.
A lot of it is being with my son, and a lot of it is conceptualizing new material and ideas for Drums and Drones and drumming in general. It’s just bringing my life lessons to the drums. I’m changing and growing as a player based on my values and experiences as a person.
MD: So maybe it doesn’t involve so much direct practice, so to speak?
Brian: Yes—but I feel it! The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing pretty sporadically, but every time I go back to the kit and play, it’s like, Maybe I need to warm up more, but as a player I’m still there and I feel like I’m doing different stuff. If I do an improv gig, it’s like, Oh, wow, there’s actually new stuff coming out! Maybe in some ways I’m lagging, but in other ways I’m ahead. I think a lot of it comes from the energy I put into conceptualizing music and the kind of musician I want to be.
MD: What do some of those conceptualizations look like?
Brian: Being with my son, Isaac, there’s obviously a heavy supportive and nurturing role that I’m developing in myself. So with Yeah Yeah Yeahs I have a better sense of knowing what that means—to nurture and support the other players onstage in a deep way. A lot of being with Isaac is loving, but it also comes with a lot of sacrifice. It’s understanding what it means to be devoted in another way—to really be there in a loving way and be there in a way that sometimes is more of a challenge personally but is best overall. That can come out technically, in the sense that I’m really going to make this music feel good! I’m going to keep it simple and keep the feel great. I give time towards conceptualizing the project and the different directions it could go, and that clears a path for the blossoming of new ideas. So the compositional strength is growing, more so than the technical side of things.
MD: So this process of releasing this box set and engaging with the audience feeds back into the project in a pretty robust way?
Brian: In many ways, definitely. I think that’s a good way to make the whole thing enjoyable. If I enjoy writing about it or thinking about the project or expressing it to different people, it still feels meaningful.
MD: This is a good way for us to segue into talking about your new record label, Chaikin.
Brian: I never expected to start a label. I do find the administrative aspect of music to be kind of a drag. But I was really encouraged to do it by [composer and musician] John Zorn. He saw it as a possibility for me, and he felt it would be good. He had a perspective that I didn’t have. It was taking the advice of a mentor.
MD: How did you come to see it as a viable path?
Brian: It was mostly faith. It was really daunting, and there were times when I thought it was crazy and didn’t think it was going to be possible for me. But I just said to myself, Alright, this is a big job, but I’m going to get it up and running, and we’ll see what it’s like.
MD: How has it evolved?
Brian: The first several months were really rough. All the admin required to set it up and get the releases registered properly and get a distributor required a lot of work—and it still does. But now that I’m past the first phase of legwork, it feels really awesome. There’s an outlet for my music and for other people’s music. I feel like it was a good decision for me to pursue this. We’ll see where it goes.
One thing that’s important with Chaikin Records is that it sees itself as part of a community. I think that’s essential for labels today. It’s about being a drop in the ocean and feeling connected to everybody else. Everybody has to work together, and there needs to be support and success all around. Doing a solo venture, it’s important to hold hands with everyone and feel the warm embrace of community.
Brian Chase with his mentor Susie Ibarra:
“Susie is deeply caring about people. She uses that sense of love and passion to fuel the music, and it gives it that intensity. These personal human qualities are essential for the music.”
MD: One of your other mentors is drummer and composer Susie Ibarra. How have your mentors helped you to find your voice?
Brian: It’s a great question. Zorn always valued community. That’s his big one. He’s such a genius in that he can embrace community in himself, the way he sets up his own projects in terms of the Stone [Zorn’s music venue, now located at the Stern Center at the New School] and with his record label, Tzadik. When he does a concert of his music, twenty-five or more people take part in it. He casts a wide net; he’s tapped into a wide music community. There are very few artists who can embody that range of diversity. Most people have their own style and inclinations, and you know what to expect. So he’s always reinforced that idea to me in our discussions.
MD: How about with Susie Ibarra?
Brian: Susie has been a drumming mentor to me and also a personal mentor. She reinforces this very human aspect of the music and is deeply caring about people and humanity. And she uses that sense of love and passion to fuel the music, and it gives it that intensity. It’s like a flame of flames. Again, it’s going back to the personal aspects of music and seeing music as not just notes on a page but as really reflecting human qualities. What does it mean to be nurturing and loving to my bandmates onstage? And using that as an opportunity for musical growth. These personal human qualities are essential for the music. A big part of my learning from her is just hanging out and hearing her describe how she handled situations and what her values are.
MD: Can you talk a little about how your Ashtanga yoga practice feeds into your music?
Brian: Through Ashtanga yoga, I’ve nurtured a deep sense of body and “self” awareness. On a physical level, yoga has helped my attention to posture and arm mechanics: I know what it means to sit straight and how it feels when I don’t. I know what it means to play with minimal tension in my shoulders, arms, and hands, and how it feels to play with much tension in these areas. Most importantly, yoga has taught me what it means to “connect to my breath,” and to rely on the breath as a foundation upon which all movements, thoughts, and feelings can be anchored.
MD: Along the same lines, I understand that you’ve nurtured your Judaism in the last ten years.
Brian: I grew up in a Jewish household, but it wasn’t until my early thirties that I started relating to it on a deeper level personally. My love for getting deeper into Judaism came in conjunction with my growing yoga practice, and when I starting learning the multiple layers of interpretation that can be applied to its fundamental texts.
In regards to spirituality, a basic premise of Judaism is connecting to an awareness of eternity. This means that there is a thread that unifies people throughout time and space: that this thread exists now, has existed before us, and will continue to exist after us. Simultaneously, this thread functions as a link between all humanity, and there is no individual that exists independent of it. As a musician, this type of perspective is an inspiration to somehow convey this generational and humanitarian interconnectedness.
Drums: GMS Special Edition Custom in Silver Sparkle finish
A. 5.5×14 maple snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×22 bass drum
1. 15″ New Beat hi-hats
2. 20″ K crash ride
3. 22″ K Custom Medium ride
4. 18″ A Thin crash
Sticks: Vater 5B and Cymbal Sticks with teardrop tip
Hardware: Yamaha and Gibraltar
Electronics: Yamaha DTX-MULTI 12 sample pad Remo Ambassador Coated snare batter and Ambassador Snare Side bottom, Emperor Clear tom batters and Ambassador Clear resonants, Emperor Clear bass drum batter and Emperor Coated front (with logo)