Up & Coming
Poly-Math’s Chris Woollison
by Ilya Stemkovsky
Drawing from sources ranging from King Crimson and Santana to Thrice and the Mars Volta, this British band and its refreshingly chops-un-obsessed drummer are boldly staking their ground on the new-prog scene.
The progressive British trio Poly-Math rocks. Hard. And all without vocals, because the music is already so full. Consisting of guitarist Tim Walters, bassist Joe Branton, and drummer Chris Woollison, Poly-Math has recently released a three-song mini album, Melencolia, its latest slice of angular riffage and aggressive beats. The drum sound is killer, with big-sounding rock production but all the minutiae you like to hear when listening to instrumental music. Woollison plays for the song, even if the song is fifteen minutes long and has multiple layered parts and odd times—though he’s not shy to whip out the chops when he feels the music needs a spark or the drums need to go toe to toe with the guitars. We wanted to know what makes Woollison and Poly-Math tick.
MD: What led you to play in an instrumental project?
Chris: When we started Poly-Math, I think we all felt that in the math and proggy genres, the vocal can often be a bit of an afterthought and doesn’t always sit that well with the style. It was a conscious decision not to go down that route. We aim to keep the attention that a vocal melody does with our guitar melodies and range of sounds. Personally speaking, as a listener I rarely listen to the lyrics in a song but instead concentrate on the instruments and production. So for me it’s natural to be in a band with no vocal.
MD: The musicians are proficient, but there doesn’t seem to be an emphasis on showing instrumental chops, because the music rocks and it’s textural. Is that a conscious decision as well?
Chris: I guess it is deliberate, because I’ve never really enjoyed listening to flashy, chops-based playing, so my drumming has never really gone down that route. For me, the satisfaction in a drum pattern comes from slowly evolving textures, repetitive phrases, and a solid, rocking beat. So although I do like to change parts quite abruptly and frequently, you’ll hear a lot of slow crescendos with subtle developments.
MD: In “Ekerot,” you play a cool, open linear pattern with subtle ghosting and tom hits thrown in. How do you come up with those kinds of parts?
Chris: I’d just decided that I wanted to experiment with some linear playing, and this felt like a good time. The guitar and bass are pretty sparse, so it opened up some space for me to play around. It’s kind of rare that it happens like that, though. More often I’ll try to complement Tim’s guitar parts with a similar or interwoven drum pattern.
MD: On “Temptation of the Idler,” for the rim-riding pattern that you open the tune with, does that happen because you’re looking for colors other than a hi-hat? You do some of that in the middle of “Melencolia” as well.
Chris: Yeah, I’m always up for experimenting with the different sounds of the kit. I need to keep up with the other two, with all their pedals! On our last record I ended up recording a drumkit through the pickup of Tim’s guitar, and it sounded awful and awesome at the same time. On this record we used a couple of different kits, one completely deadened with towels on the drums and tape on the cymbals.
MD: Do you use a click?
Chris: I use a click for recording but never live. I think the push and pull that we get is an important part of what makes our music unique, and if we ever played to a click live, it would lose so much of the feel and dynamic range. It was a challenge re-creating it in the studio to a tempo map, but I’m still really happy with the way we don’t sound too over-produced or edited, and that it retains some of the energy we create live.
MD: The musical landscape is challenging from a commercial vantage point. How can you stay true to what you guys are doing when the instrumental genre is so niche and not for everybody?
Chris: Well, it sounds like a cliché, but we genuinely only started this band as an outlet for all of us that wasn’t ever meant to be gigged or even heard. We had all been in other bands for years where we were pushing really hard for success, and after our respective bands came to an end, we just wanted to play this weird, self-indulgent music for the sake of playing, with no pressure. So to think that we’ve even come this far is incredible. I guess we just keep doing what we’re doing and hope that people like it.
Tools of the Trade
Woollison plays a Yamaha Stage Custom kit and a Pearl Eric Singer signature snare. His Meinl cymbals include 14″ Byzance Dark hi-hats, an 18″ M-Series Traditional Medium crash, a 20″ Byzance Extra Dry Thin crash, a 22″ M-Series Fusion Medium ride, and a Generation X 12″/14″ X-treme Stack. He uses Promark sticks and Remo heads.