The Colourist plays pop music—but it’s pop with teeth. As you’re drawn in by the group’s sunny boy/girl vocals, you might miss some rather less-than-cheerful lyrics. And if you think the beatsmith at the back is politely ticking out the time, you’ve got at least one more surprise coming.
As the closing credits come up on the Colourist’s “We Won’t Go Home” Wilcox Sessions video, the band’s guitarists, Adam Castilla and Kollin Johannsen, break into a familiar-sounding but decidedly not indie-rock guitar riff. Drummer Maya Tuttle and bassist Justin Wagner provide the three-note response to the metallic call, and for a moment you’re thinking, Wait…is that Slayer they’re playing?
“They said they needed us to do something over the end credits, and that we should get creative,” Tuttle recalls. “We don’t know a lot of covers, but we have this one that we like to do.” It seems that for a few years the Colourist shared a rehearsal space with a somewhat longer-in-the-tooth metal band. “One way they influenced us,” Tuttle says, “was to learn Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood.’ Well, at least the first thirty seconds of it.”
Is the performance cause for the thrash bands of the world to nervously check their rear-view mirrors? Probably not. But in terms of providing some unexpected insight into Tuttle’s rhythmic charms, it’s pretty instructive. Not since Stephen Morris and his bandmates in Joy Division broke out of Manchester, England, in 1978 has a drummer squeezed more out of the kind of alternating-hi-hat-16ths/four-on-the-floor-bass- drum pattern Tuttle falls into on “Raining Blood.” She romps that beat—just check the first half of the Wilcox video on YouTube, or listen to “Yes Yes” and “Put the Fire Out” from this year’s self-titled debut LP. And even if the Colourist’s sunny Southern California home base may seem worlds away from Manchester’s grim industrial post-punk environment, the spirit and dark energy of the legendary Joy Division single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” lives on in many of the group’s incessantly catchy power-pop gems.
“A lot of the stuff we do is high energy, with four-on-the-floor patterns,” Tuttle agrees. “On our current tour we’re doing hour-plus sets, including encores many nights, and the hardest part for me is that I’m singing a lot as well.” And with that we’re reminded of another of Maya’s strong suits—her voice. Tuttle and Castilla have crafted a complementary vocal approach, and Tuttle isn’t simply providing backgrounds; she’s singing lead much of the time. It’s a powerful tool, and it’s just one of the aspects of the Colourist that has driven the group’s debut LP to crack the top one hundred of Billboard’s album chart and the top twenty of its alternative and rock charts. It also effectively doubles Tuttle’s workload.
“If I’m running out of breath, it affects my singing,” Maya says, “so whenever I’m off tour I try to go running. It’s hard on tour, because every night is such a workout anyway. I’m gasping for breath sometimes. [laughs] It’s pure adrenaline that keeps me going. But I love being really active with the drums, and I’m having a good time up there.”
Though Tuttle says she went through a strong Travis Barker phase (“Some of the stuff he played really wowed me; he’s a showman, and I still use his sticks because they’re long and my arms are short”), her first drum inspiration was a bit less rambunctious. “I’d always been intrigued by drums,” Maya recalls, “but I remember this one moment when I was in junior high and I saw an archive clip of Karen Carpenter on a VH1 Behind the Music show. I’d never seen a woman drumming before, and it clicked for me: someone who looks like me doing something really cool. And she was singing as well. So from that moment on, my parents couldn’t get me to shut up about wanting a drumset. Finally my mom and dad got me a Tama Rockstar and let me set it up in the living room. I had strict rules, like don’t play after seven. But my family has been extremely patient.”
Tuttle, who had private lessons and played in marching band throughout high school, took a break from playing in college—dorm life made it impossible—but around the time she was finishing school, she met Castilla, whose band, Paper Thin Walls, was looking for a new drummer. “I came by their rehearsal studio once and set up the drums,” Tuttle recalls, “and I started playing for them. All of a sudden Adam’s like, ‘Maya, get off the drums and just go sit in the corner!’ I was like, ‘What? Uh, okay.’ Then their current drummer walks in…I didn’t realize that they hadn’t kicked him out of the band yet! He didn’t take any notice of me—I was just a girl watching their practice. But over the course of the next week this drummer got kicked out, and I took his place.
“Neither Adam nor I sang in Paper Thin Walls,” Tuttle continues, “and the band lasted maybe a year. But from that the Colourist was born. Justin used to come and hang out at Paper Thin Walls rehearsals too, and Adam knew Kollin through another band that he was recording. We could not find a singer, though, so out of necessity Adam and I started singing some of the ideas we had. We just found a cool vocal chemistry that really seemed to work. And the drums are sort of my safety blanket, so I felt more confident singing while I was at the kit.”
Not that it was an easy process at the beginning—or even now. “I had the hardest time with it at first,” Tuttle says. “People come up to me at shows, like, ‘You’re so talented…how are you doing that?’ and I shoot back, ‘I don’t think it’s talent.’ Because if you’ve seen my frustrating practices trying to get this down, especially in the early days, it was just grinding hard work figuring out what my hi-hats are doing on what beat, and then, oh, this lyric comes in on the ‘&’ of 3—just timing it all out. It was slow going at the beginning, but I’ve gotten more of a handle on it.
“I love watching other singing drummers,” Tuttle continues. “Every time I discover someone new I get obsessed. Like I would watch Death From Above 1979, and the energy Sebastien Grainger has playing drums and singing…. Of course Phil Collins was a pioneer, Don Henley. And there’s another band on our label, Papa, who I saw at South by Southwest this year. I’d been a fan, but watching them live and the way their drummer, Darren Weiss, commands an audience, was really cool. And for me, it’s always a fun moment when people come up after a show and they’re like, ‘I didn’t even realize you’re doing the drums too.’ I love those moments when you can surprise people, when they can see how we carry this out on stage.”
A staunchly DIY outfit, the Colourist is uniquely poised to realize many of its creative ideas, which extend well beyond the music. Tuttle, who was an English major in college and subsequently worked on the public television show Roadtrip Nation, imagined a career editing and directing film. “When we were making our first videos,” she says, “I could run the cameras, and I’ve edited stuff for us. Kollin was working in graphic design, and he’s now doing all our album art. So we have this cool skill set, which makes everything more authentic. And an English degree helps you learn to think, which has been so helpful in terms of lyrics—and in every aspect of my life. So I feel like I wasn’t really derailed from any career, but rather I found another extension of my interests and passions.”
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Tuttle plays a C&C Custom maple kit featuring an 8×12 tom, a 14×16 floor tom, and an 18×22 bass drum, plus a 6.5×14 Pearl Limited Edition Vintage SensiTone brass snare , Paiste Giant Beat cymbals (14″, 18″, 20″), and DW hardware.