Tim Kuhl’s musical background is rooted in classical percussion and jazz. But in recent years, electronica artists, who can captivate crowds with little more than a laptop and quick-thinking musical minds, have seduced the drummer into conceptualizing outside—and inside—the “box.” Kuhl’s stripped-down approach has shaped the direction of his software-based songwriting and impacted his choices in gear.
The thirty-six-year-old native of Baltimore, Maryland, moved to New York City in 2003, assimilated quickly into the Big Apple’s progressive jazz scene, and eventually transitioned into other musical settings. Over the last decade-plus, the Brooklyn resident has hooked up with rockers the Izzys, led his own jazz band, the Tim Kuhl Group, recorded fusion-y solo efforts Ghost and King, and racked up credits performing with numerous artists, most notably Sean Lennon’s Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (GOASTT) and vocalist/guitarist/bandleader Margaret Glaspy.
Solo recordings, such as 2012’s St. Helena, 2015’s 1982, and 2018’s Sky Valley, reflect Kuhl’s evolution from modern jazzer to electronica-obsessed composer, whose cinematic soundscapes are rife with near-hypnotic synth lines, repetitive rhythm tracks, stoic spoken-word passages, and electronically processed acoustic percussion. “There are technically acoustic drums on all but two songs on Sky Valley,” says Tim, “but all the acoustic drum tracks are doubled with electronic drums, manipulating the sound a bit.”
Although fueled in part by the visionary literary work of sci-fi cult figure Philip K. Dick, horror master Stephen King, and 19th Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, Kuhl swears by big screen classics conjured by filmmakers such as Michael Mann, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and horror director and composer John Carpenter, who’s recently applied 21st Century software technology in his soundtrack work to create spooky signature sounds. “These directors often have wild ideas but are very in tune with how they mix music with their visuals,” says Kuhl.
• Stick Control
• iPad running Ableton Live and GarageBand
• Vater 5B sticks
• vintage Zildjian and Paiste cymbals and Ludwig drums
• MapleWorks snare drum
• Roland SPD-SX sampling pad
Tim clings to George Lawrence Stone’s enduring book Stick Control to exercise his drumming muscles, but looks to other inspirational sources to ignite his songwriting spark. During precious downtime before gigs, Kuhl composes music with audio software and an iPad, a habit he formed while touring with Sean Lennon’s GOASTT in 2014. Although he currently uses Ableton Live, Kuhl also occasionally taps GarageBand. “I strive for meditative or quiet time away from the noise a tour can bring,” says Kuhl. “Writing music with little association to what I’m performing on the road is similar in that it helps clear the mind.”
A self-described “basic” kit mirrors the drummer’s newfound fondness for streamlining his creative process. “I use a 1965 Champagne Sparkle Ludwig Club Date kit with an 8×12 rack tom, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 14×20 kick drum,” says Tim, who’s been awarded a residency at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn through this December. “I play a 6.5×14 MapleWorks snare drum I bought at a drum shop in Baltimore ten years ago. For cymbals I have 14″ K Zildjian hi-hats from the 1960s and a 20″ Paiste Traditional Light ride, but I’ve also used a 22″ Zildjian Avedis ride with rivets from the 1970s, which can sound like an electronic effect when mixed in with electronic instruments.” Kuhl also uses a Roland SPD-SX sampling pad that triggers tracks and samples he’s made from recent records like Sky Valley and 1982. Kuhl’s stick of choice is Vater’s 5B model.
When performing in a duo with trombonist Rick Parker, Kuhl further explores the musical and rhythmic possibilities converging at the nexus of analog drumming and electronic devices. “I play drum beats over the already existent sounds and samples,” says Tim, who’s taken up the practice of donning headphones for these shows, “and Rick adds all the textures he can via a trombone that runs through a full pedal rig. It’s all very human to have a person physically play a horn. It’s the same thing with drums. People have to exert themselves to generate sound. The idea is to mix this physicality with the use of electronics.”
The surreal and often chilling squalls of the semi-improvisational Kuhl-Parker musical environment evoke a dystopian future while recalling the joys of techno rock and sinister sonic qualities of archetypal ’80s horror film soundtracks. “It’s cool to know that performing can feel new each time you play live,” says Kuhl. “That’s important, because it makes the live experience more enjoyable.”