Roles flip, as the drummer for the indie-rock hitmakers Vampire Weekend steps out from behind the kit to front his own project while recruiting an established solo artist, frontwoman, and drummer to handle his grooves live.
The New York–based, world-music-influenced rock band Vampire Weekend became an alternative-music household name in the late 2000s thanks to singles such as “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “A-Punk,” and “Oxford Comma,” all from its 2008 self-titled debut album. The group, backed by drummer Chris Tomson, would go on to achieve number-one Billboard chart debuts with 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City.
In late February of this year, Tomson released his debut solo record, Youngish American, with his project Dams of the West. Produced by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, the no-frills indie-rock album sees Tomson augment his own catchy melodies, jangly guitar hooks, and pulsating dynamics with the familiar driving, tom-infused grooves that adorn Vampire Weekend’s catalog.
To fill the drum chair on an extensive U.S. and Canadian tour this year, Tomson enlisted Gabriela Jimeno, a frontwoman herself in the one-person, sampler-based electronic/indie project Ela Minus and a drummer in the psychedelic indie-pop group Balancer. Live, Jimeno instills an invigorated zest into the Dams’ set while handily orchestrating Tomson’s multilayered parts around the kit on songs such as “Death Wish” and “Tell the Truth.” And when a driving pulse is called for underneath Tomson’s smooth melodies and propelling guitar, Jimeno slams it home.
As Tomson and Jimeno were trekking across the country in support of Youngish American, they took a break to talk to MD about bringing their previous experiences to Dams’ live set, and more.
MD: What was the process for bringing Youngish American to a live setting?
Chris: Everyone listened to both the entire arrangement and their specific part in isolation before we rehearsed. Even though I have a semi-checkered jam-band past, I approached the Dams’ live show similarly to a live Vampire Weekend performance by trying to keep it fairly similar to the recording. I wanted to feel like the band was being faithful to the songs and their arrangements, and Gabi has continually been great at doing so drum-wise.
Gabriela: I first aimed to learn the parts as exactly as I could, to understand Chris both as a drummer and a songwriter. I wanted to know the intention of each song and part. I wanted to understand his drummer “self” so that he’d feel as comfortable being a frontman as he would be playing the drums. It’s literally like walking in someone else’s shoes.
All of the parts have a place inside the arrangement of the song. It’s like Chris writes drumbeats that include all the instruments in a band, as opposed to only all the parts of a drumset. And you have to think of them in that way—like melodies. We’re both aware of how different the context of a recording is compared to a live performance, and that’s been very present in my interpretation of the songs. The more we play together, the more I learn about the way he thinks as a drummer and about his taste on the things that I bring along. It’s become a balance for me to play his parts the best I can while making small changes that come along naturally and serve the intention of each song.
MD: Do you share any common influences?
Chris: I think the Venn diagram of our drumming style and influences has lots of overlap and separate interests. On the last tour, we both enjoyed figuring out exactly what our mutual interests were and what we could contribute to each other. I think my best contribution to Gabi’s purview was introducing her to the Walkmen and Matt Barrick’s incredible drumming.
Gabriela: I think we definitely have a similar taste in music, but weirdly at the same time it’s very opposite. But there’s always room to show each other new music. Chris Bear [Grizzly Bear] is one of our favorite drummers. Creativity and originality are qualities that I think we both appreciate in other musicians.
MD: Have you learned anything that’s changed your concept of drumming after fronting your own projects?
Chris: I feel like I’ve become way more sensitive to the ups and downs of tempo during the Dams’ touring. Now I feel very attuned to the natural speed of the Dams’ songs, perhaps because of the mechanics of lyrical enunciation. I’d like to apologize to Vampire Weekend for all of the extra-speedy “A-Punk” performances over the years. My bad!
Gabriela: Drums serve as a platform for music and musicians to be free. The better a drummer you are, the more freedom you give to your bandmates to express themselves. When you play drums, you’re letting go of your ego and serving the music and your bandmates—never yourself. From both fronting a band and backing them, you understand that it’s not about what form you’re expressing yourself in when your entire self is music. It doesn’t matter what shape it comes out of you.
MD: In certain songs on Youngish American, there are driving, atypical drum parts that almost sound overdubbed, such as in “Tell the Truth.” Chris, how did you approach coming up with the drum parts for
Chris: The approaches to drumbeats on this record were all over the map for me. I’d fumble around on the kit until something felt cool, such as in the verse groove of “Death Wish,” or play around with weird Roland CR-78 grooves, like on “Youngish Americans.” Patrick Carney was incredible when it came to shaping up the drumbeats and sounds for the album.
MD: Gabriela, are there any technical challenges in playing layered parts live on a kit?
Gabriela: It’s like trying to play what two or three drummers are playing at once. Minimalism is a very prominent concept in my approach to music. As a drummer I always think, What’s the least I can play without losing the beat? As an exercise many years ago, I’d try to break down beats. I’d start taking things away—such as a hi-hat part or specific beat in a measure—and see how minimal I could go before I’d get lost or be unable to recognize the original part. So learning these parts was like that exercise—fun and interesting.