Written on the wall of the ancient Egyptian temple of Luxor is the proverb Know thyself, and you will know the gods. Whether or not he’s come across that bit of wisdom during his travels, this drummer certainly gets the gist of it. For the many, many hours he’s spent perfecting his own unique powers have led to undeniable success on multiple fronts.
New York–based drummer JP Bouvet is a chameleon, but even that seems like a limiting term when you consider the range of drumming styles he executes exceptionally well. His band Childish Japes rocks hard and dabbles in jazzy grooves and beats primed for rappers, with enough slick kit work for the fusion heads to notice. But he’s also the drummer for Generation Axe, a traveling circus of guitar heroes from the 1980s and beyond. And then there’s his online educational presence, where he steers clear of explaining beginner material, instead focusing on his unique perspectives on rhythm and craft.
Growing up in Minnesota, Bouvet dipped into everything from big bands to Hendrix before making the choice to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “At Berklee I went through a phase where I wanted to be a studio cat, and I’d be on everyone’s songwriting and production projects,” he says. “But then I realized the session-guy thing is not really for me, because I’d rather care and be invested in the music I was doing, as opposed to showing up, doing the job, and leaving. I’m much more interested in being creatively involved and showcasing what I have to say.”
But before the bright lights of New York City lured him to recent pursuits of saying something, Bouvet first had to drop out of Berklee to focus on winning the Guitar Center Drum-Off contest. MD caught up with the twentysomething Bouvet to discuss committing to that goal, and the new artistic directions he pointed himself toward once he attained it.
MD: Talk about your experience at Berklee.
JP: I did two and a half years of the four-year program at Berklee. It was an important place for me, because I came from a place where I was one of the only drummers I knew, and I thought I was awesome. And I came to a place where people from all around the world were doing things that I had never heard of. I was plopped into this very deep pool of new ideas. And it was primarily from fellow students. I could walk by the drum practice rooms and immediately have months of things to work on. In my first year there, I made the fastest progress I ever had in my life. I had lots of time to practice, so I’d be in the room for six hours a day fairly consistently.
The big misconception about Berklee is that it hands you a career on a silver platter, which is completely untrue. But it is fertile soil. And it goes for any art community or music school that there’s no other time in life where you’re with a group of young, hungry, good musicians who have all left their hometowns and have nothing going on except this drive to create something new.
And I was in so many different bands there—prog bands, a metal band, Latin-jazz bands. I always had a dream of someone saying that I was so sick on the double bass drums and then another musician saying, “That can’t be the same JP—he’s a killer jazz cat.” I always wanted that odd situation to occur. And fast-forward that I played for Generation Axe with Steve Vai, Zakk Wylde, and Yngwie Malmsteen, juxtaposed next to my own band, which is essentially an art-rock jazz hip-hop project. It’s about as close to that dream coming to fruition. I ended up dropping out of Berklee because I wanted to practice more for the Guitar Center Drum-Off the year that I won it.
MD: You made the Drum-Off a priority?
JP: I’d done the Drum-Off five times before. Since I was fifteen years old, on and off, I’d prepare a solo and do my thing. Two years into my Berklee career, I was on my A game for drumming, practicing for hours a day for years, pushing myself, practicing some things I thought were cool and new that I hadn’t heard other people do, especially on the Drum-Off. So after the first round of five, which is the local level, there was a key turning point where I thought I could actually win this. I possess the tools to win this. And the fact that I got through the first round was a little bit lucky, because in Boston you have all these sick Berklee cats.
MD: Did you do the same solo each round?
JP: No, it was evolving. And at that moment, it lit the fire and I knew I was going to obsess over this, and I set a strict four-hour-a-day practice regimen. I was an A student, but at this point I was skipping classes and my midterms. And I kept progressing through the rounds at the Drum-Off over the course of months, getting to the regionals, which I’d never gotten to. I was still refining my routine, working on a 7/8 clave with the left foot, and a 5/16 time signature. I watch the video now and it’s a little bit painful, because it was just the beginning of my exploration of those ideas. I’m much further along now. But I’d spend the first half of the day practicing on an acoustic drumset, and I had this 360-degree Neil Peart set going on, and I’d play on this electronic kit, because at the time I was also preparing for this international V-Drums competition, which was the week after the Drum-Off.
MD: Did winning the Drum-Off raise your profile to where you started getting calls?
JP: What it does is turn tens of thousands of heads toward you for maybe just a few minutes. So you get a huge wave of people that have a look [at you]. The next day I got 250 friend requests and the video was obviously amassing a lot of views. But as you can imagine, especially today with how quickly interesting videos come and go, a month later no one really gives a shit. But I knew as soon as I won that I needed to become something other than the guy who won the Drum-Off, because people are going to stop caring very quickly, and also this time next year there’s a new winner, and if I was just the winner of the Drum-Off, at that point I’m nothing.
It was a huge spark, and it enabled me to build a fan base and a career in the drum community, but I emphasize “build,” because it took a massive amount of effort. At the time I was aggressively doing these video blogs that were meant to be an open window for people into the process of being a nobody and hopefully becoming a somebody in the drum world. High school and college students who had similar goals were interested in following that. I brought them along with every milestone—my first clinic tour, my first drum festival, my band recording an album.
MD: How did the Generation Axe thing happen? You’re thirty years younger than everyone on that stage.
JP: The best part of going to Berklee is the network that you accumulate. I lived across the hall from Matt Garstka, drummer for Animals as Leaders, one of the best drummers alive right now, and we had an ongoing practice/competition thing. He was the original drummer on that tour, and he recommended me for the gig.
It was all music that was new to me. It was fun and an awesome challenge. It was trial by fire in an extreme way. I had never played with real rock gods in venues that big. I needed to hit way harder than I ever had, and basically I suffered through a lot of blisters for a couple of weeks. That volume of playing is a technique that I hadn’t developed. I tried to be efficient with my energy but also bring the power and the look. You have to look like you’re playing hard as much as you have to actually play hard. It’s a show. I was on the first tour for two weeks, and I remember that [only] for the last show did I not have any pain in my hands. My body wasn’t used to doing that, especially for three and a half hours straight.
MD: Your band Childish Japes has an interesting sound. What was the impetus to begin that project?
JP: It’s an essential part of a musical career to be musically invested in a project that is creatively rewarding. So I enjoy doing gigs like Generation Axe, and there are several other dream gigs, but those alone would not make me a happy drummer. The whole “show up and do the right job” thing is exciting for a while, but I feel I have more to say. Over the past few years, I’d practice and come up with crazy ideas and focus on finding what I thought were innovative drum things, with no outlet for those ideas.
And Childish Japes is a creative safe space for all the musicians involved—who are some of the finest in New York—to bring their crazy ideas. It’s not only okay but encouraged for us to explore. It’s really a passion project. All the catalysts for the songs on this first album have come from jams. And it’s a more open and artsy project where we can feature any of our favorite singers. I want to create something so cool and unique and open that it could draw some of my idols to collaborate.
MD: “After You’re Born” has some very cool syncopation. Talk about how you develop that.
JP: We’re all working with the same simple tools. We have four limbs and a handful of drums. We use singles or doubles almost exclusively, with some amount of rest between them. So the real goal of drumming is to be able to control when each of your four limbs triggers, and how hard it triggers. That’s where syncopation comes in, and dynamics and placement of notes. So that ends up being your fingerprint as a drummer. My goal is to never hit a technical roadblock when it comes to syncopation or independence.
“After You’re Born” is a good example of us being aware that we’re a trio and trying to produce a lot of sound for three people. I’m trying to sound like there’s more than one person playing on the drums, or there’s an added tambourine here or a click separately. All four limbs are working together, but they’re each playing a different sound. And that one pre-chorus is meant to throw you off, to give you a rhythmic punch. The snare drum is accenting the second triplet of the groove. I’m not a fan of losing people too far, but it’s another tool that creates a little tension and release.
MD: What’s the plan for your educational career?
JP: I had already been designing an educational website regardless of whether I won the Drum-Off. I had no idea how deep the online drum education world was, because I was never part of it or studied on it. People like Mike Johnston, and Drumeo, I literally didn’t know they existed. My goals are different from most people who get into it. I’m not interested in building the world’s biggest encyclopedia of how to play any groove and how to learn the drums from day one. A website like Drumeo has done that extremely well, and that is their goal. My website is meant to be an extension of me. I don’t want to tailor who I am to the audience; I want to create a band that enables me to do whatever I want to do.
For my educational content, I want to share what I genuinely think is cool and interesting and what I’m practicing and finding personally useful. But I’m not likely going to break down a bossa nova 101 on my website. It’s an interesting dilemma, because I’m aware that starting a more basic-level drumming [site] is a better business model if you want to attract more numbers and students. But at that point I would just become an online teacher. So my website is more artistically inclined than most other sites. If you were interested in playing or thinking like me, my website is the best place to go for that. It’s for drummers who want to keep pushing and do something creative and unique.
I recently had a lesson with Mark Guiliana, one of my heroes, and I took away from him that I don’t need everyone to like me or care. I need to find the realest output. There’s an audience for everything and everyone out there, if the product is honest and of a certain quality.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Bouvet plays a DW Jazz series maple/gum kit with an olive ash burl outer ply featuring a 5.5×14 snare, a 10×12 rack tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 16×20 bass drum. His Meinl cymbals include 14″ Jazz Hats, a 21″ Nuance ride, a 22″ Symmetry ride, a 20″ Medium Thin Jazz crash, and a secondary hi-hat comprising a 12″ Trash Hat top stacked on top of a 14″ Generation X X-treme bottom. He uses Vic Firth 55A sticks, and his Remo heads include a Coated Ambassador snare batter, Coated Emperor tom batters and Coated Ambassador resonants, and a Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter.