That place where wild improvisation meets super-refined composition? It’s a very sweet spot indeed, and this drummer is at his best when he’s smack-dab in the middle of it.
Joseph Arrington joined the Sacramento-based post-hardcore act A Lot Like Birds in 2010, soon after moving to California from his native Utah. Since then, ALLB’s live shows and three proper studio albums—founder Michael Franzino put out a collection under the group’s moniker in 2009 before a true lineup coalesced—have resulted in much attention coming Arrington’s way. So has Night Verses drummer Aric Improta’s popular YouTube video “Drum Chain: 9 Drummers, 1 Song,” not to mention Arrington’s ongoing work with several other projects, including the West Coast conglomerate Sianvar, which features members of his main band as well as Dance Gavin Dance, Stolas, and Hail the Sun.
With the recently released Divisi, ALLB has embarked on a bold new strategy, abandoning the thick, twisting arrangements and the mix of dirty and clean vocals for a decidedly more mainstream though still virtuosic sound. Cory Lockwood’s vocals in particular help to distinguish Divisi from the band’s earlier material, as do the cleaner arrangements, which don’t present the risk of injury to the listener’s neck while head-banging along.
A trained, seasoned professional, Arrington is obsessed with fluid technique, rich drum tones, and flawless performances, which balances squarely with his ability to smash ALLB into a frenzy when the moment is right. MD caught up with Joseph during the band’s headlining domestic tour earlier this year.
MD: What was the process for creating the new A Lot Like Birds record?
Joseph: On our first LP, Conversation Piece, I would sit in our studio and mess with drum ideas and try to collect a handful of grooves and fills and parts that sounded cohesive, that were all the same tempo and stuff, and I would just give them to Michael. He would lay them all out and Frankenstein them a little bit, and we would end up with an entire drum skeleton. We’d have a three-and-a-half- or four-minute skeleton, and then he would layer guitars and bass over it.
That definitely happened on the new album, and…I love that dude, but he would take my grooves and just invert them. He’d take something I’d played and split the measure into three parts and move them all around. Michael would fully realize these movements, but he’s not showing up saying, “Here are these drumset parts I programmed; you should play them verbatim.” He says that he prefers to write with rhythmic ideas first. He’s a very melodic person, but he enjoys infectious rhythms. If you have the talent to write infectious rhythms, things that make you want to move or make you feel good, that’s a serious skill. Then having the ability to put great melodies over it, that’s gold.
MD: Did the song “The Sound of Us” start with a rhythmic germ?
Joseph: It’s interesting that you mention that song, because it’s one of the ones on the new record that started with the drum parts. Almost the entire song was mapped out ahead of time. That song was almost completely drums first.
MD: You can sense that. Was that the only song on Divisi that came about like that?
Joseph: In its entirety, yes. Another song, “Further Below,” definitely grew from some of my drum parts as well.
MD: Talk about the new stylistic direction on Divisi. You had two members leave since your last album, No Place. Was it intentional to go in the direction of being more melodic and vocally centered, with less-frenetic arrangements, or was it just a natural development with the members you have now?
Joseph: It was definitely intentional. No Place was written a lot in the same way as Conversation Piece, but this new record is definitely more refined. It was a very difficult change, because we were used to chaos—that’s kind of where we’d gotten our identity. I look back on No Place and I can’t even listen to that record sometimes. There’s just so much going on, so many layers.
I’m blessed to have lots of projects to pull from and dive into. That means that, in a very selfish way, I have my projects where I can kind of go nuts and really be the crazy drummer in the back of my head. Then I’ve got A Lot Like Birds, which is a really great opportunity to become a songwriter, you know? I don’t just want to be a crazy chops guy, which I don’t really feel I am anyway. But that little drummer devil is in the back of all of our heads.
MD: Let’s talk about the gear you’re playing.
Joseph: I’m a Gretsch artist, and they’re awesome people. I have two New Classic kits that I got before they discontinued them. Those are the ones that I use for studio stuff. I have one that I’ve used on just about every record that I’ve put out. That thing is just like butter. I also have a newer Renown kit that they shipped me at the beginning of 2015. Once I wore that one in on the road, it sounded different, but still amazing. They’re ridiculous-sounding drums. There’s just something about the New Classic kit, though. It just has this essence.
MD: What drew you to Gretsch?
Joseph: I worked for a company called Skip’s Music in Sacramento for a while. It’s an incredible family of people that runs that place. I worked in their backline department, and I had an opportunity to play just about every company under the sun before I really spent money on a nice kit. I tuned and played all the high-end kits, and what I learned is that none of them has that undefinable thing that Gretsch has. I’ve used my black-sparkle New Classic kit on all of these records, and every engineer is just gaga over it. It’s been fun to bring it along on this journey.
MD: Your toms are set up fairly flat. Do you make any kind of technical accommodations for that, or does it just feel right to you?
Joseph: It does feel right. I’m a tall guy. I’m 6’1″ and I spend a lot of time sitting behind a kit and trying to position my hands and find what makes the most sense ergonomically. If you do flat toms the right way, you can kind of make even a large kit more compact. All my toms and my snare are fairly flat. My rack toms angle toward me a little bit, but it just feels right.
MD: As far as projects that you’re officially part of, you’re doing A Lot Like Birds, Sianvar, and alone., right?
Joseph: That’s right. Alone. is a cool departure. That’s Michael’s solo stuff, which is a whole other story. He wrote with programmed drums and stuff, then he hired me to come in and learn every single part he had programmed, as verbatim as possible. There’s definitely some of my spice in there, but for the most part those drum parts are his concoction.
Alone. has never performed live. I’d love to do that at some point, but we’re not sure what’s going to happen there. Sianvar is a side project with a bunch of musicians that I really respect. [Dance Gavin Dance guitarist] Will Swan’s record label, Blue Swan Records, funds the records, and we recoup instantly. We tour when we can, and I think we’re going to start writing again this year.
I also have my own crazy stuff. Toward the end of the year I’m going to be putting together an instrumental prog nerd record. I’ve got to do it once in my life. I want to try my hand at that sort of Animals as Leaders spectrum—I’m not saying that I’m on their tier at all, just that kind of material. All the stuff that I didn’t do on this last Birds record is going into that project tenfold. That’s going to be my own vision. I’m going to hire some friends from around the country. I haven’t landed on exactly who yet, but I have the funding for it, so I’m going to make a full-length record.
MD: Do you have a name for that project yet?
Joseph: I don’t. Right now I’m at a point where slowing down is not even possible. I’m launching a Patreon [popular online patronage site], which is going to be just crazy amounts of video content and drum blogs. It’s not really going to be lessons, because I feel like if you want the basics and stuff, it’s all out there. It’s like, if you want [to get] in my brain, inside of our little cosmos, here’s a really portable, cheap way.
Another project I’d like to mention is a thing with my friend Brian Curtin. It’s his brainchild and it’s called Love Mischief. It’s kind of like the Grateful Dead meets Chick Corea, with maybe a little bit of the Headhunters thrown in there. We’ve filmed these live takes of songs, Snarky Puppy style. We’ve done fifteen or sixteen of them, and they’re just lying in wait for Brian to finish school. He’s going to start this big marketing process, and those videos will be dropped like a bomb.
MD: Are you teaching at all?
Joseph: I do Skype lessons, and I meet people on tour at shows. We just set up a kit in an alleyway and go at it for two hours.
MD: Are you primarily marketing that through social media?
Joseph: Yes. I did one Instagram post and I filled up every single date on this tour. That was a good sign! The teaching on tour has been really great for me. Seeing the size of the drummer crowd at these shows has been a big inspiration. I think a lot of the video content on the Patreon will be how we approach songwriting and drum parts, where the ideas come from and why I use them.
MD: The video play-through you did for “The Sound of Us” is a great example of how precise your playing is. How composed are your parts? Do they change from night to night live?
Joseph: You’ve stumbled into my personal Pandora’s box! These things are both strengths and weaknesses. I come from playing a lot of jazz and improvisational music growing up. When I’m home in Sacramento, I’m a working jazz musician playing in trios and quartets. My drummer brain has been influenced by all of the guys I’ve idolized, like Tony Williams, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Steve Gadd. They were so in the moment. When I play live, I lose myself sometimes. I’ll go for these fills and parts that just feel so cosmic. Like, That felt amazing—I don’t even know if I can repeat it. Sometimes I’ll go for a fill and the bass player will look back at me, like, No. Don’t do that again. [laughs]
There are times when you just go for it. If you don’t land it the way you expected, it’s just a tiny moment in history where you didn’t end up with the thing you intended in your head. It’s already over, and now you have another empty canvas to try it again. I’ve never even gone back to try to play my stuff the same way I did on the records.
MD: I got the impression that most of your parts were preconceived, probably just due to the precision of your playing on A Lot Like Birds’ material. Your execution seems practiced and polished to that point.
Joseph: Thank you! There are obviously parts that have to stay intact. There’s this crazy linear groove in the verse of “The Sound of Us” that’s fairly verbatim every night. There are some things that are so fast and so hectic that trying to improvise there isn’t really practical. The devil in the back of my head is like, You should go for this fill, but I’m like, Don’t screw this up. Not this part. [laughs]
I mostly improvise in fills and a few kick and snare patterns here and there. I explore that much more with Sianvar. I’d say 90 percent of my fills are improvised on the spot on these records. When I recorded the latest Sianvar full-length last year, my goal was to be as honest as possible. There are a few cringe-worthy fills that other people like, and I’m like, That’s not what I wanted to do there, but it’s honest. It’s just me in the moment, sweating in a warehouse, recording drums.
Drums: Gretsch Renown Maple in vintage pearl finish
A. 6×14 Hammered Brass (or 5.5×14 New Classic) snare
B. 7×10 tom
C. 8×12 tom
D. 14×16 floor tom
E. 16×18 floor tom
F. 18×22 bass drum
1. 14″ A Custom Mastersound hi-hats
2. 19″ A Custom crash
3. 22″ K Constantinople Bounce ride
4. 20″ A Medium Thin crash
Various “veloci-stackers” made of broken Zildjian cymbals
Sticks: Vic Firth American Classic 5B wood-tip model
Hardware: DW, including 9500TB two-leg hi-hat stand, 9300 snare stand, 9700 boom cymbal stands, and 9000 series single bass drum pedal; Gretsch tom mounts; Roc-n-Soc saddle-style hydraulic throne
Heads: Remo, including Coated Controlled Sound X snare batter and Black Suede snare-side, Vintage Emperor tom batters (Coated or Clear depending on the band) and Clear Ambassador resonants, and Clear Powerstoke 3 bass drum batter and black PS3 front head
Accessories: Westone ES60 in-ear monitors