Since forming in 2009 while the members attended the Berklee College of Music, the group known as Bent Knee has released several records and done extensive touring, including a string of European dates last summer followed by opening slots on the U.S. leg of Dillinger Escape Plan’s farewell tour.

While genre-bending compositions and technical virtuosity are crucial to its sound, the band is not short on big hooks and melodic invention, most recently on display on its major-label debut album, Land Animal, released this past June on Sony’s Inside Out imprint.

Drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth does more than navigate odd times or lay down solid timekeeping. He’s a thinker, always throwing in an unexpected spice to give the songs a little twist, or playing a chops-laden fill to elevate the vibe. Of course, as with any collective that can boast top-shelf players, there are plenty of ideas flying around, so sometimes a little space is what the music needs most from the drummer. MD recently asked Wallace-Ailsworth about his approach to Bent Knee’s music—which, in retrospect, it seems he’s been preparing himself to play since he first picked up the sticks….

MD: Were you always interested in progressive music?

Gavin: My father was a drummer, so drums were always in the house. I would take the boom box downstairs and play along to albums I was listening to. I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan, and of all the drummers who’ve played with him—Manu Katché, Jerry Marotta…. So as a six-year-old, I was attempting to play along with some of that stuff.

MD: You can clearly hear that in your playing—cool patterns but lots of space.

Gavin: Thanks. There are six people in Bent Knee making a lot of sound. I naturally find that the way I have to orchestrate my drum parts is to leave space for the other five people. I got into progressive music just before my middle-school years. I was a huge Kiss fan and I learned so much about rock drumming from studying what Peter Criss did. He taught me how to do a shuffle with “Detroit Rock City.” One day I said to my father that Peter Criss was probably the best drummer of all time, and the next day he came home with Rush’s All the World’s a Stage, and it blew my mind. So I tried to learn all the Rush and King Crimson stuff I could. Bill Bruford’s playing with Crimson is a major influence.

MD: And Berklee had an impact?

Gavin: I loved Berklee. To be in an environment where everyone is as passionate about music as you are was new for me, and a very special thing. You saw someone with a Rush T-shirt and you could strike up a conversation about how Neil’s playing changed over the years. And in my first semester, I had private lessons with Rod Morgenstein, who is an amazing drummer and human being. He would give me just a keyboard track from his Rudess/Morgenstein Project and tell me to come up with my own part without listening to his [original drum part]. I started finding my own voice during my lessons with him.

Photo by Jonathan Tadiello

MD: There are videos of you playing bass guitar as well. Does that help your drumming?

Gavin: It’s given me a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side of the rhythm section. Before I learned bass, I would overplay on the drums and not allow the bassist room to be himself or herself. Afterwards, it made me more sensitive to what the bassist’s sensibility might be. It also made me think in terms of pitch a little bit more. It made me think about the singability of how I’m voicing fills on the toms. 

MD: Are you interpreting demos for the Bent Knee songs? Or are drum parts coming out of jams?

Gavin: A lot of the demos brought in are people programming drums with whatever software they’re using. I really enjoy the writing process in this band, interpreting people’s glitchy drum parts and doing my best to bring the machine to life. For “Terror Bird,” we’ve been inspired by the [Swiss] composer Nik Bärtsch. On the guitar, Ben [Levin] was doing this hybrid picking polyrhythm thing, with the guitar pick between his thumb and index finger, doing six, and with his ring finger on another string doing four. And then alternating between four over six and five over four. So we jammed for twenty minutes, switching back and forth between those parts, and I played it all different ways at the kit, and eventually just found the groove that wound up being the beginning of “Terror Bird.”

MD: Do you take a fairly organic approach to playing live?

Gavin: Yeah, we don’t have any click tracks or anything like that. It’s funny, but I’m the only entirely acoustic member of the band. The vocals and violin go through effects on a laptop, for instance. I’d like to incorporate electronics into what I do at some point.

MD: Do you get new ideas from solo practice?

Gavin: Much of my own personal improvement comes from working with the band. But I’m trying to move away from the kick/snare/hi-hat kind of thing. I tend to gravitate toward tom-based textures. I’m always striving to make my playing more melodic and to widen my sound palette. It’s hard to just sit down for an hour and completely reinvent the way I think about how a drumkit is used.

I’ll sequence drum grooves on my laptop, with inhuman sounds and weird delays and reverbs, and then try to re-create that on the drumkit.

There’s a fair amount of people with an aversion to those who write with samples and stuff like that, and letting that influence their playing on a drumkit that they sit down at. But that’s the future of where a lot of “iconic” drum parts are going to come from—from people who maybe don’t even play a drumkit as we know it.

Tools of the Trade

Wallace-Ailsworth plays a D’Amico drumset in the studio; on the road he generally uses provided backline kits along with his D’Amico snare, which is fitted with Remo heads, plus various Zildjian and Paiste cymbals. Gavin uses Rich drumsticks.

Featured photo by Damien McLean