Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Lasting Affect of King Crimson

It was 30 years ago that I wrote a Style & Analysis column on Bill Bruford for Modern Drummer magazine. In the column, I transcribed various sections of his drumming with YES, UK, and King Crimson. The response to that one column was huge. This lead me to talking to Bill after a Moraz/Bruford concert here in Milwaukee, and proposing to do a whole book of charts from Bill's various bands he had played in. In his quiet English demeanor, he said, “Do you really think there's a need for it?” I assured him there was, even showing him some of the letters I had received about the column. He said he would “think on it.” The next night, before his show in Chicago, he called me on the phone and very enthusiastically said, “Let's do it!” He then started rattling off a list of songs that he thought I should transcribe. 

This became a 4-year project of transcribing, then sending things to him via post (this is before e-mail) for him to check out and make any corrections. As can be imagined, the process took months between letters, as Bill was very busy playing around the globe. Finally things were done and I sent them off to Modern Drummer, who was going to publish it. Bill sent his commentary, and then things were put together and released in 1988. Now during all this, I was still receiving letters and feedback from people who had read the column. And when the book was released, I received even more. 

The book I never learned…

One of the things people asked was for tips on playing things, because they assumed that I had learned all of the charts in order to transcribe them. The funny thing is, other than a few small rhythmic figures, I never really practiced or learned ANY of the material I transcribed! While I was, and still am, a big fan of Bill's playing, it held little relevancy to my own playing. I didn't play in any bands that did any of the songs I had transcribed, so there was no real need to learn how to play them. Besides, transcribing music is one thing, playing it is another. This really shocked some people.

That leads me to the lasting affect of King Crimson. I remember when I first heard the Larks Tongues In Aspic LP. It totally blew me away. I was already a fan of Crimson and had their previous recordings, but I was not prepared for the leap forward that Lark's Tongues was. And as much as I admired Mr. Bruford's drumming, the thing that really hit me was what percussionist Jamie Muir was doing! While Bill held the beat down, Muir colored things with an amazing array of sounds: sheet metal, squeaking balloons, a battery powered laugh box, and other crazy sounds. I was hooked. From there, I searched out other recordings with Mr. Muir. I found a few improvised jazz things with The Music Improvisation Company, but that was it. And then he dropped a Gong on his foot at a Crimson gig in, I think, Germany, and then left the band. So there was precious little of his percussive musings to go on, but the impact he had on me was immense!

When all the other drummers wanted to be Bill Bruford, I wanted to be Jamie Muir.

Jaimie Muir in full flight with King Crimson

And Muir had a deep and lasting affect on Mr. Bruford also. Muir was one of those larger than life sort of figures who just had a way to play the smallest sound, yet make it so right, so perfect for the moment. Thankfully, today there are some archival recordings and video of him with King Crimson, working the inspired magic that only he could do.

So for me, discovering Jamie Muir was one of the pivotal moments of my artistic career. And even some 42 years later it still resonates inside me. So when other drummers talk about King Crimson and how Bill Bruford affected them, I always mention Jaime Muir as the one, the wild card who really did it for me…

~ MB

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Out of the Safety Zone

Drummers generally have it safe. We are usually stuck in the back, with a wall of instruments around us, like a barrier between us and the rest of the musicians and the audience. We are safe in our cocoons. We are also usually supporting the other musicians and the music, so what we play underpins things, rather than being the focus. In some ways it's easier to be in the back. You don't have to worry about leading, or being the center of things. If you play drum set, you also are able to sit back and just groove (which is still a lot of work, but not being the center of things).

In the groove, in the pocket. I have nothing against that. In fact, I'm always in awe of players who have a deep groove. But again, this is a supportive role. It's easy to find a groove and just sit there. A good groove can go on forever. Drums & percussion have a long history of supporting everything with a groove.

But what if you do something different and step out front, out of your safety zone? What if you perform solo, naked and alone up on stage, with no band to just groove behind. I've been doing that for the past 13 or so years. Playing solo on drums, hand drums, Gongs & metals, and various combinations of all those. 

There's a lot of responsibility in playing solo. But it also opens things up. There is more room to move. You don't have to make sure the band knows where you are going. You are in control. Singer/pianist Tori Amos started out playing solo, then formed a band around her, and now she's out playing solo again. In a recent interview, she had this to say about stepping away from the band: 
But when you’re playing alone, you can make changes and take the show wherever you want. It takes a lot of stamina, though.

“It takes a lot of stamina, though.” An understatement. As a solo performer, you carry everything. You have to be on all the time, because you just can't put things on cruise control behind someone else. 

My current solo performance set up, minus a few things…

So I have a solo show coming up next month. I'm the opening set for a new monthly performance series here in Milwaukee, FORMATIONS. I have a 45 minute set to put together. Even though it's only 45 minutes (there's a second set with a group after me), I'm trying to find the right combination of music to play. Over the years, I've developed a fairly large repertoire of compositions to choose from, so I want to look back through my catalog, as well as play some new music.

It's always an amazing experience playing solo, but, “It takes a lot of stamina, though.”

“Being a drummer is hard. To be a drummer is a life force. You have to be motivated to even deal with this instrument.  ~ Roy Brooks

~ MB

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Finding Your Own Sound With Any Instrument

Syncronicity was at work this week. A week ago I was talking with fellow drummer, Ari Moosavi about drummers having their own sound. Ari is a great drummer with a distinctive sound. His cymbals are some old, cheap Japanese ones. The sound is very dry, very distinctive. The cool thing about them is that they don't sound like a million other drummer's cymbals. And Ari can make some beautiful music with them. So if anything, they are very Ari sounding.

I've had this discussion with various other drummers over the years, and recently again on Facebook. Sometimes it's come to the point of arguing about which is more important to getting a drummer's sound: the gear, or the drummer. My personal feeling is that, all things equal, 90% of your sound comes from you. It comes from how you hit/strike/touch the instruments. It comes from the amount of pressure/force you play with. It comes from where you strike things. And it even comes from the notes/rhythms you choose.

I learned years ago, from working in drum shops and playing on hundreds of drum sets, that I can sound like me on any set of drums. This idea of the sound being the drummer was reinforced when I let my friend from Switzerland, Fredy Studer, use my drums for a gig 10 years ago. Even though they were my drums, tuned my way, he still sounded like himself, and not me.

Look at Bill Bruford, it didn't matter what snare drum he played—an old Olympic, a Ludwig, various TAMAs with various shell types—his snare drum always sounded like Bill Bruford, and he's the only one to sound that way. Neil Peart is another good example. I've listened to him since he joined RUSH, and no mater what drums he plays—Slingerland, TAMA, Ludwig, DW—he still sounds like Neil Peart.

My trusty drums & cymbals I've had for ages…

Now please understand that I'm not against having great drums, cymbals, etc. Quality instruments can often make the job easier and sound better. But, and this is the big thing, you can often get a very workable sound from just about any drum or cymbal. What I find interesting are drummers who constantly change their gear in the search for some mythological ideal sound. How can you find any instruments's potential in just a few days or weeks? Why not spend some actual time with it and learn what it can do, what sounds you can get out of it, and find a sound that is YOU. 

I really think it's important to stick with an instrument and work at finding and unlocking all the sound potential that you can from it. But that takes time. Other musicians tend to have one main horn or string instrument that they play for a lifetime. Or in the case of someone like Jeff Beck, he may have new guitars frequently, but he knows the guitar is only a tool, and the way he plays it is how he gets his sound.

Obviously, broken or inferior gear can be a hindrance. But you don't need a $10K Craviatto set of drums to be a great drummer. You can make great music playing a $500 Export/Swing Star/Stage Custom/etc. With the right heads and the right tuning, you can be in good shape. If the drums are round and have good bearing edges, you can get a good, usable sound. I’ve heard some of the best drummers in the world play various house & rental kits that weren’t the best drums, but they made them sing.

Here's a great story from Gerry Hemingway:

"You Be" was recorded in the fall of 1985 at the famous Ludwigsberg studio in Germany and is the third recording of BassDrumBone. Our producer Stephen Meyner had overlooked that I don't travel with a drum set so when we arrived I was faced with rummaging through the closets and basement of the studio trying scare up something resembling a trapset. In the end you would never know it, but if you had a look at what I taped together out of microphone stands and toilet paper rolls you would be amused. Another one of those "challenges" of being an improvisor. ~ Gerry Hemingway

I'm a big fan of Gerry's drumming and music. You Be is a great album. You would never know the problems with the drums, because Gerry is such an amazing drummer that he makes it happen. In fact, for most gigs and recordings, Gerry uses different drums, but he always sounds like Gerry Hemingway. I remember interviewing him for Modern Drummer and he was almost embarrassed to admit that his own drum set was a well worn Ludwig Club date kit he had since high school! Here we have one of the best drummers in the world and he doesn't worry about what gear he will be playing. He knows that he is the music.

Make magic happen with whatever instruments you have…

~ MB

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Be the person you’d hire if it were your gig or session.

Be the person you’d hire if it were your gig or session. That sounds simple, but it's not always that simple.
The big assumption here is that you've got your act together and are professional in every sense. Now put yourself in the place of the bandleader. The usual things you would look for in hiring someone would be things like: they get to the gig on time, they can play well, they can play the music style/s called for, they are easy to work with, they don't have any drug or alcohol problems, and possibly that they can read music. 
If it's an audition you are going to and there are songs to know, KNOW THEM! Don't just show up thinking you can fake your way through it. Auditions are tedious and draining. The last thing a band or band leader wants to put up with, is time wasters who really shouldn't be auditioning. Be courteous, be professional, and most importantly, be prepared.

From there, it's all about context. Put yourself in the position of the bandleader and the type of music the band plays. If it's a jazz gig, the bandleader may be looking to hire someone who wears a suit and tie. If it's a metal band, they may be looking for someone who wears black or leather. If it's a classical gig, a tux/long dress may be in order. It may sound overly simple, but if you're auditioning for, or playing a jazz gig, you wouldn't want to show up looking like a goth, unless it's some sort of goth-jazz gig. In the same way, you wouldn't want to show up at a metal band audition looking like a science nerd. You might be the best player/singer in the world in that style, but if you don't look the part, you probably won't get the gig.
The same thing with your gear. If it's a wedding or social gig, it probably isn't a great idea to show up with a 20 piece double bass kit—save that for the metal or prog rock gig. If you can always be the appropriate person, with the appropriate look and gear for each gig, you will most likely get more work and build your reputation. And your reputation can go a long way in securing more gigs.
So remember, be the person you’d hire if it were your gig or session.

~ MB

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

8 Simple Things To Hinder Your career

Ah, being a musician is the life. You work hard at it, and the rewards can be many. But a simple misstep can throw it all away in an instant.  Here is a short list of things NOT to do:

  1. Don't break your word. A promise is a promise. I learned the hard way. I once begged off a gig I was committed to because I had received a "better offer." Well, things didn't work out quite the way I had hoped. The gig I left apparently didn't go so well without me and I lost a friend because of it. The "better" gig I took turned out to be rather lame and wasn't better at all. Lesson learned…
  2. Don't act like a star/diva/jerk/dick head. No matter what term you use, nobody likes to work with someone who thinks they are bigger and better than those around them. This goes for band mates, managers, promoters, and even fans. Treat all people you meet with decency—that will go a long way and be remembered.
  3. Don't think you are too big/good enough you don't need to work at it. Yes, you've been doing this for years, but like an athlete, you need to stay in shape, stay at the top of your game. Don't show up at rehearsal thinking you can just wing it, when everyone else has been working hard to get their parts down.
  4. Don't be lazy. OK, so only 5 people showed up to your gig. Don't be lazy and just go through the motions. Look at it as an opportunity to really do your best and wow those 5 people so much they become lifelong fans, who in turn tell everybody what an amazing show they missed. The next time you come back to the same venue/town, you should have a much bigger audience.
  5. Don't play all drunk/stoned/out of your head. I shouldn't have to mention this at all. You might think you are playing amazingly, while your bandmates are struggling to play along with you. I once had to fire a bass player in the middle of a gig because he was so drunk. We carried on without him…
  6. Don't be late. I repeat, don't be late! This should be a no brainer, but I'm always surprised by how many musicians pop in 5 minutes before the gig starts and have some sort of lame excuse. Plan accordingly for traffic, etc. and arrive EARLY. I like to get there early enough I can set up and then take a break, relax, and get my mind ready for the gig.
  7. Don't talk shit about other musicians/bands/managers/producers. I'm sure you wouldn't want people talking shit about you, so don't about others. Besides, you never know what sort of opportunities will come up in the future. You may need to work with someone you have said stuff about. Maybe someone you've said stuff about will be in a position to hire you, and then pass because of what you've said.
  8. Don't forget that it's about the music! Yes, there's fame & fortune, travel, media, etc, etc, etc. But don't EVER forget that it's about the music. If you ever lose sight of the music, then it's time to get out and get that day job…
Now go make some music…


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

8 Simple Things To Boost Your career

Sometimes being a musician is a singular, insulated type of life. You can spend all of your time practicing and working on your music, yet miss out on things that can help your career. Here is a short list of things to do:

  1. Go out and listen to live music! I know we can all be busy, but it's important to see and hear other musicians. It can be inspirational, giving us new ideas. It can be educational and teach us new things.
  2. Listen to music, especially types of music you aren't familiar with. If all you listen to is heavy metal, or be-bop, then you have a very narrow world view. Listen to other types of music, especially styles you may not like. As with going to hear live music, this can inspire us and give us new ideas to work with.
  3. Work on things out of your reach. If all you ever practice are things you know, you will never grow. As drummers, it's easy to just play the same old great feeling grooves. Find something you can't play and work on it.
  4. PLAY LIVE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN! Practice, practice, practice is great, but sometimes you just need to get out there and play, especially playing with others. Sitting in a practice room and working away is commendable, but it can also be stifling. So play whenever you can: 2 songs, a whole set, a whole concert. LIVE is what music is all about.
  5. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT. Let me repeat that: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT. If you wait until what you are working on is perfect, before you play it out, you will never play it out. Get it down and get it out there!
  6. Don't listen to destructive criticism. Today, with the internet, everyone is a critic. If someone does a write up/blog about your music and gives you unqualified shit, don't pay attention to it. Not everyone will get what you do or like it. Just keep moving forward.
  7. Be gracious about constructive criticism. Positive criticism can be helpful. It can often see things we can't. It can help us improve our technique, or music, our careers. The one rule about any criticism is to look at the context: does the critic know what they are talking about? Is it someone you respect? Are they just trying to slag you to make themselves look better? With any criticism, take what helps, then keep moving forward.
  8. Stick to your vision. You are the only one who can see the whole thing. Don't let others put you off your path. But also be willing to adjust and change things as you go along. Sometimes we hit dead ends and need to start over. Sometimes we just need to make a slight turn left or right. Stick to your vision.
~ MB

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Signal to Noise

If you have something in your heart to do, you should do it. - Terry Bozzio

I remember talking to Terry Bozzio years ago when I was considering going the solo percussion route. I was tired of dealing with bands, and also had this idea for something so different, so radical from anything I had done before. He was extremely encouraging. Buoyed by the support of Terry, and many other percussion friends, I did just that and haven't looked back.

And so it is, we are often bombarded by others telling us what to do: "You should get a real job," or, "You can make more money in a cover/tribute band." Now mind you, I'm not saying don't get a real job (whatever that is), or don't play in a cover band, as these might be your aspirations. Each of us is different. Each of us has different ideas about music and our own personal musical goals. What I am saying is that while other people will be quick to tell you what you should do, you need to listen to yourself. What are your true desires and yearnings? 

If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. - Rollo May

Don't let your signal be clouded up by the noise of others. If you have a dream, be true to it. Work towards it, and don't let others deter you from it. Keep your signal noise free!

The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself. - Oscar Wilde
What are your true dreams and aspirations?

~ MB