David Langlois

Portraits

David Langlois

Story and photos by Michael Parillo

Inventing an instrument often means inventing situations in which to explore it. This globe hopper has made a lot of things happen with a modest yet versatile and fun-sounding concoction that puts heirloom family items to brilliant percussive use.

When you walk into a bar to find a nattily dressed cool character with thimbles on his fingers and a tricked-out washboard in his lap, it’s an image you won’t soon forget. And then you hear the guy play—a brisk, quick-turning groove with all sorts of sharp tones and what sounds like the sweep of a brushed snare drum, all delivered with rhythmic fire, good humor, and a tad of attention-deficit restlessness. You haven’t even noticed yet that in addition to a traditional woodblock, the board is adorned with non-drummerly things like a fondue pot, a dishpan, a trowel, and the sieve from a food mill. Let’s just say that after you’ve witnessed David Langlois in action for the first time, you’ll be telling people about it the next day.

Langlois moved from his native France to New York City in 2005, and he began amassing a variety of gigs while starting to learn English (he’s now fluent, as you’ll see). One of his first hookups was with guitarist Stephane Wrembel, a proponent of Django Reinhardt–type “Gypsy jazz” who also incorporates styles as diverse as flamenco and blues. Langlois traveled the world with Wrembel’s band until late last year, when he left in order to focus on his many projects in New York. With his uniquely homespun washboard rig, and sometimes his djembe, in his lap, David—who plays old-time jazz and R&B with the Blue Vipers of Brooklyn, does session and jingle dates, has worked with mandolinist David Grisman and with Chapman Stick player Steve Adelson (among many other artists), and also plays guitar and sings in the reggae group Jahwid—can be seen live just about every night, in one of the city’s hundreds of venues.

MD: How did you create this instrument, and what was your path to focusing on it exclusively?

David: I was playing the drumset, and a clarinet player that I met on a gig saw that I knew “New Orleans jazz,” as they call it in France—Dixieland stuff. My teacher had told me to learn jazz if I wanted to make money and not be unemployed. The clarinet player said, “Let’s make a band.” He was going on tour in the south of France. He said, “We already have a double bass in the car—you obviously can’t bring the drumset. You know how in New Orleans they have that washboard?”

I had Terry Bozzio and Billy Cobham posters on my wall. I was…not insulted, but I was a drummer, not a washboard player, whatever that was. But I was so intrigued. I was in the mountains in France, the Alps, staying with my grandparents. At the entrance of my village there was a thrift shop. Very nasty, very dusty. And the dude, I asked him, “Do you have a washboard?” He’s like, “Yeah, sure,” and then he disappeared for like twenty minutes. He came back with that one, trying to dust it off. “Five bucks.” He was happy to get rid of it.
So I showed up at my grandparents’ house and put on that band’s CD. I asked my grandma if she had thimbles, because I heard you need thimbles. Luckily, she had two. I asked for more. She said, “You need only one for a lifetime, so be happy that I have two.” So I was in my room with just the board and those two thimbles, trying to play along to that CD. Oh, man—that’s so boring, it’s so flat. I got very frustrated.

David Langlois

So I went down to make myself a coffee. And that [points to fondue pot] was there in the kitchen, maybe drying with the dishes. While I was waiting for my water to boil, I started hitting it with those two thimbles, and it sounded nice, like a cowbell. My grandma saw that I was really into it, so she said, “You know, we’ve had that for fifteen years”—that was the family fondue pot, and up there we ate a lot of those—“and it’s paid off. You can have it, if it makes you feel a little better.” And then my grandpa was there, also waiting for his coffee and smoking a cigarette, so I asked him, “Hey, can I jiggle that thing there?” I had a cymbal idea; I was trying to re-create a drumset. I tried the cheese-grater thing [aka the sieve], and it sounded a little bit like a cymbal. So then the grandpa played the game, and he went into his workshop and came back with a bunch of trowels and probably some other stuff. So I kept that trowel, thinking of a hi-hat.

Then I got a dishpan to have a snare, which became my main element, and I got more thimbles. And the grandfather fixed the whole thing to the washboard, because I don’t know how to put four screws together. It started to be my kit. And that was it—we went on tour in the south of France. I was bleeding, I would lose thimbles.…

We were playing in the street a lot and getting gigs. We’d play a market, because there are markets every day. We’d meet the chefs and restaurant owners shopping, and they’d say, “You’re gonna come play in my restaurant tonight.” We’d do a whole tour like that.

And then, when I came back, I would bring the snare and hi-hat and the washboard. But nobody would notice me playing snare. As soon as I switched to that, I had all the attention. Little by little I gave up on the snare and the hi-hat and I just brought that thing.

MD: You can see people get excited once they realize what you’re playing on.

David: It’s weird. I wouldn’t even play it—I would set it up before the gig, and already people would be taking pictures or wondering what it is, just gathering around it. They never did that with a snare drum!

MD: Was there any feeling of needing to get together a concept for the instrument?

David: No. I played a lot and found myself in situations, especially in New York. Before coming to New York, the only thing I knew how to do on this was swing. I didn’t know any straight stuff. Then I came to New York, and all of a sudden in the middle of the gig: “Okay, a mambo…” And I’m like, “Shit, how am I supposed to play a mambo with a trowel and a fondue pot?” You don’t even have a second to think about it—you just try to memorize the different sounds you have at your disposal and try to use the right one at the right time.

You evolve because you have to create something else. You find yourself playing some flamenco. I never played flamenco before, so I would go to the board, because the sound was more like the clapping, the compás. But for something more snare-y, like some funky stuff, I would go more between the trowel, which is the cymbal, and the dishpan, which is the snare. For New Orleans second-line beats I can add some cowbell. I was adapting to whatever was going on right then. It’s like I have a bar to figure it out. By the second bar it should be all right, and hopefully by the third one it’ll be fine.

MD: If the trowel is the cymbal and the dishpan is the snare, what about a bass drum?

David: Well, that’s what was kind of missing. But most of the time I would play with an upright bass player, and they’d take care of that range. It was weird at the beginning, because I would still have my feet going—like a duck that’s still walking after you cut off the head. Little by little that went away, and I would focus more on my hands. So I couldn’t play without a bass player—he was the counterbalance.

David LangloisAfter a while I started to add a suitcase to the kit and use it as a bass drum. I still do that once in a while, but I play with very good bass players, so I don’t have to think too much about this.

MD: You must have been at a much lower technical level when you started than you are now.

David: Oh, yeah—and I had only two fingers. So the brushing was not there yet. It took me a little bit to realize that I had eight “sticks” and how much I could do with that compared to two. So I started to really get into the brushing, and also the brushing [with two fingers while the index finger is free to tap out other rhythms]. Also you can mute [the pan] with the thumb. And there’s a roll with two fingers while I’m brushing and tapping at the same time. I couldn’t do that with two sticks or two brushes.

Then I started to really create a whole technique. I don’t think I’d heard another washboard player…yet. It’s only when I went to New Orleans after being here for two or three years. I was already playing that thing for fifteen years when I went to New Orleans. Zydeco? Oh! I didn’t know anything, and that’s probably why I don’t use the board too much.

MD: What did you take away from your first experience in New Orleans?

David: I think it’s going to be my next town. It was that powerful. It was the first time I was going into a town that was dedicated to one of the musics I love, which is old-time jazz. I was with really good friends who took me around and had me play gigs, and I was really living the dream. So that’s what I’m gonna do next, I think. After New York, that would be a nice next step.

MD: Were you influenced by seeing the washboard players there?

David: No. It just made me realize that I wasn’t a “washboard” player—I’m a fondue pot and pots-and-pans player.

MD: You’ve done a lot of Django Reinhardt tributes, with Stephane Wrembel and others.

David: The videos of the New York Django Reinhardt festival really helped me be known by the people who listen to the music. I didn’t know it was watched so much. Every time I see Europeans it’s, “Oh, yeah, we saw you in that video with Angelo Debarre and blah-blah-blah at Birdland.” So it seems to be a big part of where I am now.

MD: When I heard you play through a big PA at one of the festivals, it seemed that you knew exactly how your sound was translating through the mics, and you calibrated everything perfectly. You later said you actually prefer situations where you don’t have to be miked.

David: Yeah, because it’s closer to reality to me. But it depends—if the dude is amazing on the board and has some effects that sound awesome, okay, I prefer his stuff. But that’s not most of the time. It’s not like a guitar, where every string has the same volume and you put a mic here. The dude might know what he’s doing but he’s never had to mike a trowel. So by experience I usually prefer it without the mic, but if the room is loud I lose a lot of subtle things.

MD: What do you like to use for mics?

David: One condenser on each side. It’s the situation that seems to be the most realistic.

MD: Looking back, it’s hard to believe you came to New York to work without speaking English.

David: That was tough. I didn’t know musicians either. I wouldn’t answer my phone, so I could be able to listen to messages five times or ask someone, “Which address is that? Which day?” It was really confusing. But that’s part of what I came here for, to understand English, and now I’m so glad I did that, because I get that whole perspective on storytelling.

I loved them before, but I love even more Bob Marley or Bob Dylan or people who are telling stories with messages. Because now I can understand; it’s not just a word here and there. Johnny Cash—I didn’t know anything about him. To me he’s mostly a storyteller, so before understanding the story I didn’t really have anything. I discovered that country music, when it’s good, is mostly about the story. And the blues, and pretty much everything here. It’s like you guys have four dimensions when we have only three. So all of a sudden I’m discovering the fourth dimension, which is understanding what the guys are talking about. And it’s huge.

Go to moderndrummer.com to see a clip of Langlois at work on his washboard rig.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

David Langlois

Langlois uses thimbles to play an old zinc washboard from a thrift shop in the French Alps, outfitted with, clockwise from lower left: his grandfather’s trowel, a dishpan, an LP woodblock, the sieve from his grandmother’s food mill, and his grandmother’s fondue pot.