Antonio Sanchez knows the key to being a successful jazz drummer in this unpredictable decade: Always keep evolving. To stay ahead of the game—both artistically and business-wise—the indefatigable artist embraces a whirlwind schedule and wholeheartedly welcomes a challenge.
In addition to his seventeen-year association with famed guitarist Pat Metheny, Sanchez globe-hops with his own dynamic unit, Migration, which has been touring his epic sixty-minute Meridian Suite. Other recent projects include an improvisational quartet featuring saxophonist David Binney, bassist Matt Brewer, and guitarist Ben Monder, as well as an all-star unit that includes Snarky Puppy guitarist/bassist Michael League and top percussionist Pedrito Martinez. And a release next year will showcase Sanchez performing his own compositions with Cologne’s WDR Big Band.
In 2014 Sanchez famously ventured into film with his groundbreaking solo drumset score to the Oscar-winning film Birdman. That triumph led to further film work, including the drum-centric score for the EPIX TV series Get Shorty. Antonio has also released Bad Hombre, a drumset-meets-electronics venture that he singlehandedly created in his home studio. “One of the most fun parts for me was getting out of my comfort zone—being this completely different kind of drummer, producer, and musician,” Sanchez says. And, indeed, Bad Hombre is a must-hear, the work of a drummer/composer intent on discovering new sounds in his environment, and within himself. Antonio recently sat with MD to talk about the album’s creation.
MD: You continually find new directions for your drumming, Birdman being a dramatic example. Now Bad Hombre takes that trajectory to another level. Given today’s rapidly changing music world, what do you think the future of drumming is, and what do you think is the secret to survival in the industry?
Antonio: It’s versatility. You have to have your hands in many pies. Because if you’re relying on one thing, it might dry up at any given moment.
Experiencing the Birdman phenomenon, I was able to peek into Hollywood a little bit. At the beginning I was a little standoffish, thinking, Okay, if I’m going to be writing music for somebody else, how can I be writing for myself? and It’s not artistic freedom because of all the parameters that you have to follow when you write music for TV or film.
But I talked about it with Alan Silvestri, who’s an incredibly accomplished Hollywood composer, and he said, “You didn’t just open a door for yourself with Birdman, you blew up the whole side of a building! So if you want to take advantage of it, it’s there.”
So when the opportunity arose to buy a house with a basement, I thought, Great—I’m going to have a place to practice. Then right when Birdman was happening, I got a few offers to do some commercials. The “drums only” concept was becoming a thing because of Birdland and Whiplash, I guess. Suddenly I was getting lots of offers. One was an independent Spanish documentary [Política, Manual de Instrucciones], and one was a British film [The Hippopotamus]. I thought maybe I could turn [my basement space] into a recording studio for myself and it could pay for itself very quickly.
So I set up the studio, and all of a sudden I had this incredible laboratory down there. Once I started experimenting with the different possibilities, it was almost overwhelming: You have no time constraints, no money constraints. All you have as a limit is your creativity.
MD: How did Bad Hombre evolve musically from Birdman?
Antonio: In Birdman, it was great to hear the drums up front, with some pads in the background and atmospheric sounds. I wanted to try my hand at doing my version of that, but go all the way. I envisioned the drums being at the forefront, but with something that hadn’t been done before: I wanted to juxtapose really acoustic-sounding drums with an all-electronic background.
I didn’t want it to be just vamps; I didn’t want it to be tunes—I wanted it to be waves of energy, soundscapes. But I wanted it to have shape and form and be sonically gratifying, because I grew up listening to very well-produced music—rock, pop, and, later, electronic—and honestly, I think jazz often lacks production values. A lot of jazz albums sound like crap to me because they’re recorded in one day, mixed in one day, and mastered in one day. It’s a huge difference when you take a little bit more time.
Nowadays you can have the studio in your laptop; the possibilities are mind-boggling. It’s now about how you’re going to use those tools for the betterment of music and artistry—and yourself.
MD: Electronic projects can often sound labored and stiff due to meticulous programmed layering. But what struck me most about Bad Hombre is the human element, a sense of interaction. What was the process?
Antonio: Every track was slightly different. But the main idea was to record a bunch of drums—and to have something in mind when I sat down to play. For example, when recording “Momentum,” I thought, I’m just going to start playing and then speed up, and that’s it—no click track, no nothing, just start with open soloing, go into a groove, then start elaborating on that groove and speed up.
Whenever I was home for a couple days, I would record a bunch of stuff and then bring it on the road with me. I’d listen to it with my Pro Tools rig and my laptop. Then I would try to find shapes. I’d done long improvisations, so I wanted to edit them down to something palatable. Once I had a footprint of a good track that was interesting by itself, I would figure what sounds would go with that.
On some parts, once I had the drum tracks the way I liked them, I added bass, reacting to whatever I had previously played. One of the clearest examples of that is “Fire Trail.” The only thing I had going when I recorded that is what you hear in the very beginning, an arpeggiator playing a pattern in 4/4. But even though it’s in four, my idea was to be thinking in 5/4 on the drums, so it starts going over the barline for a while before it comes back.
When I recorded the drums on that, I was purposely being very spastic—trying to be very unpredictable so that I would leave spaces for me to fill some other way later. As I was listening to it, I improvised bass on the keyboards. [Then] I had arpeggiators going on where I was improvising chord changes, reacting to the drums and the bass. Once I had that going, I added atmospheric sounds on top. But the main idea was for the human element to be there—to interact with what I had just done and not think about it too much, so that it would be very spontaneous.
There are two tracks that I did the other way around. I found a sound I liked and started improvising with it, and found a form in my head. Then I immediately went to the drums and looked at the screen, amplifying the track so that I could see the events I had just recorded—because I hadn’t learned them yet. So I was just seeing where the events were going to hit in real time and reacting to that.
MD: The track “BBO” is driven by nonstop, super-fast snare work, using a myriad of textures.
Antonio: For that, I found a sound that I liked and started playing stuff in seven without thinking about it too much. I took it home and I wasn’t really sure of what to do with it. But I kind of heard this fast continuous thing underneath. So I recorded a really fast snare drum part with two snares. One was tuned very high and had a little splash on top to make the [pitch] even higher. The other was a deep snare.
I didn’t want to just play two bars and loop it; I wanted it to be ever-changing. So I did a few passes, going absolutely nuts on the snares, playing 32nd notes for a long time through the whole thing. Once I had that bed, I created a completely new drum track, doing a really fast bebop thing on top. That’s the most experimental track.
MD: There’s a political aspect here. The term bad hombre, for instance, was used by Donald Trump in a presidential debate.
Antonio: It’s something personal for me because I’m Mexican. I feel that President Trump has belittled Mexican people right from the get-go. I’m very outspoken when it comes to that; I’m outraged, like a lot of people. On the track “Bad Hombre Intro,” I wanted to include Trump’s voice talking about “bad hombres.” But [it was] such a nasty thing to say that I wanted to balance it out with something beautiful and very Mexican.
MD: That opening features a scratchy Mexican record with voice and guitar, and your beat fades in and syncs to it. Does that old record hold special significance for you?
Antonio: [chuckles] Yes, very much so. What you hear is my grandfather’s voice. He’s a very famous actor in Mexico. He’s ninety-two and still active. Right now he’s doing two plays simultaneously. He’s unbelievable—like the Roy Haynes of acting. He’s one of my role models, the first person I saw that could make a living doing what he loved and support the whole family.
I had recorded a beat and a bass line and thought it would be so nice if I could include something that was very personal, very Mexican, and what better than my grandfather. I went through some of the records he’d done, and it just so happened that that one was in the right key for my track. I said, Oh my God, this is all so fortuitous! It was like it was meant to be.
Tools of the Trade
Sanchez plays a Yamaha PHX series drumkit and Zildjian cymbals. He uses Remo heads, Zildjian Antonio Sanchez Signature sticks, and Latin Percussion products.