A drummer’s raw ride through modern, dirty, and driving punk—with the genre’s storied history in tow.
Twelve Nudes, the eighth and latest release from the prolific singer, songwriter, guitarist, and bandleader Ezra Furman, borrows from classic punk rock like the Ramones but with modern-pop sensibilities and a seething production. Throughout the album, which was released on August 30, drummer Sam Durkes drives Furman’s distorted up-tempo fervor with primal boom-bap kick and snare slaps, growling tom grooves, and a surprising avoidance of cymbals.
Durkes started playing drums when he was twelve years old, growing up on a steady diet of ’70s punk and ’80s hardcore including the Clash and Black Flag. The drummer tells MD that he landed the gig with Furman around seven years ago after having built his playing career in the Chicago area. “Ezra was a fan of one of my bands, the Canoes,” Durkes says. “He needed someone to go on tour, so he called me about two weeks before the run, just after putting out his first solo record. Two weeks later we were on a support tour with Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s. Also, his little sister is good friends with my partner, so there was that kind of connection as well.”
In support of Twelve Nudes, Durkes will be on an international run with Furman that lasts through late November. We recently caught up with the drummer at his L.A. home via phone.
MD: Who are your influences?
Sam: I love Weezer’s drummer, Pat Wilson, especially on their first two records, the Blue Album and Pinkerton. I also loved Topper Headon from the Clash. He’s the man.
MD: Do you ever think about those players when you’re playing with Ezra?
Sam: Definitely Topper Headon. You didn’t notice him until you [paid attention to] him, which I always thought was cool. He’s very robotic, and I love that. He’s got these single-stroke fills that just ride all the way down the toms. The Clash song “Tommy Gun” was a huge inspiration for me because he was like a machine gun. I always thought that was so rad, powerful, and strong. I think about that song all the time.
I also took lessons from a guy named Chris Dye in Chicago. He was in a band called Chin Up Chin Up and a bunch of other bands. His drumming is phenomenal—super tight and simple, and that’s what he taught me. He’d always say, “Stay simple, man.” He’d write out beats and fills for me to practice, and I still think about them all the time. There’s a song on Chin Up Chin Up’s first record called “The Soccer Mom Gets Her Fix,” and I play that beat at almost every soundcheck.
MD: Your drums have this dry, biting tone on Twelve Nudes.
Sam: I’m very specific about what I want, and I work with our engineer, Trevor Brooks, a lot. We talk about it on the road, because in addition to being our studio engineer, he’s our touring engineer as well. The easiest thing for me to do, and the thing that always sounds good, is to throw tea towels on the toms and snare. Mainly for this record we used an old Rogers ’60s kit that was busted up. The heads were all so dented and taped up—they might not have ever been changed. But I threw tea towels on, and it sounded awesome. I’d use cinder blocks to prop up the kick drum to keep it from moving, too. And we switched it up. Obviously something like “Rated-R Crusaders” is going to have something really tight that blends in. And that song just has a tom beat, but it blends in with the chugging bass. And then when you hit the last triplet part, it kind of opens up and gets bigger.
MD: Was the end of that song pasted in?
Sam: Yeah. Ezra and I will usually get together to do demos. He’ll either fly down to L.A. or I’ll fly up to Oakland. On the last record, he really wanted to do something a little more tricky with the production, such as pasting parts together. On this one, he kind of wanted to do something ridiculous like that at the end that was kind of groovy. It’s funny, and it’s a kind of juxtaposition. For a lot of the production that sounds like that, including on that song, we did it on a 4-track in some room, and we pasted it on.
MD: Are you two the primary writers?
Sam: Ezra writes all of the tunes, and he’ll send us little phone demos. And then Jorgen Jorgensen, the bass player, and I get together with Ezra, and we’ll arrange it and get vibes and tones down. Then we’ll bring in either Ben Joseph, who plays keyboards, or another musician to lay something on top of the foundation, depending on what we need.
MD: Was Twelve Nudes self-produced?
Sam: It was basically produced by Ezra, Jorgen, myself, and Trevor Brooks, who is the engineer. The original idea was to do something quick, fast, loud, dirty, and get in there and get it done. The whole record was recorded in about ten days. And then we got John Congleton to mix it, and he does a lot of creative mixing. I can’t speak highly enough about him.
MD: The cymbals seem sparse on the record.
Sam: Basically Ezra hates cymbals or anything that resounds too long. I tend to lean toward thinner, washier cymbals or bigger, wider cymbals. But Ezra definitely doesn’t want that. Those cymbals take up a certain frequency range that I think just bothers him. I think if we never used cymbals, that would be ideal for him. Then you have Jorgen, and he always says, “Man, you have to ride on this one. It sounds so good.” [laughs] Jorgen was raised by a drummer, and he’s an incredible musician. Working with him in Ezra’s rhythm section is just awesome.
MD: Is there anything you practice to maintain your energy in the studio?
Sam: In the studio, my mind is more geared toward tone and less about stamina or precision. Regarding precision, the imperfections are what make the record real. Obviously I’ll loosen up, but my head is more in a tone-world and finding whatever is going to sound best with the band.
MD: When you’re writing, what are you paying attention to?
Sam: It’s not just one thing. When I first hear a song, I’ll say, “That guitar needs to sound like this song, and that song has these drums that sound like this.” And I want to get a part down from those ideas.
Vocals are kind of the last thing I pay attention to. [laughs] I’ll obviously pay attention to the melody. But in terms of how Ezra is going to sing, he’ll adapt very well if we take a song in a different direction before we get vocals on there.
MD: When you first started playing, did you imagine drums would take you around the world?
Sam: Initially I always thought that I was going to be sleeping in a van, and I never thought past, I can’t wait to go on tour as soon as I get out of high school. I never thought past being in a band and touring the U.S.: eating crappy, drinking too much, not sleeping—or sleeping on peoples’ floors…. But I’m happy to be where I am. It’s a pleasant surprise.
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