Learning from the Drums

In seeing live shows for the past decade and a half, I’ve learned more about drums than any other instrument. Partly because it’s transparent: You see what’s being played. (By contrast, I still have no idea how a saxophone works. And I just don’t believe in trombone. There’s no way an instrument with no keys can make all those sounds. They must be faking it.)

Some of the revelations were small and technical: Gino Robair turning his snare drum upside-down once, to play the metal ball-bearings on the drum’s underside. I’d never known what a snare drum was made of before.  Or seeing the rich bag of tricks most drummer/percussionists bring to the gig — which helped explain the panoply of sounds I was hearing from Jim Black on those Tim Berne albums.

Most of what I learned, though, came gradually, through repeated observation. Here’s what’s possible. Here’s what the instrument can do; here’s how it mixes with others. Here’s what it sounds like outside the boundaries. Here’s what a mistake sounds like.

What counts in percussion?  Speed is a great tool, but there’s so much more. Precision, inventiveness, texture. I suppose that last is a throwaway term; for me, it’s a measure of the drums’ contribution to mood and atmosphere, the fabric they weave.

I’d once heard the comment that to have a good rock band, you need a really good drummer. Most casual rock listeners think of the drummer as the last kid picked, but when you consider that the drums (and bass) usually “write” their own parts, the value of capable band members becomes more obvious.

This struck me once while listening to The Glass Intact, a nice 1998 pop album from the band Sarge (whose songwriter, Elizabeth Elmore, would go on to The Reputation and then a legal career). It was probably around 2003 when I gave the album a re-listen and realized how impressed I was with the drummer, Chad Romanski. He added snap and crackle to the catchy tracks and great subtle choices to the more somber ones, especially his  snare drum on the song “Charms and Feigns.” It coaxes a foreboding, darker mood while keeping a pop-music feel.  Great choices. In a new way, I realized the difference the drums can make.

It’s no exaggeration to say that going to see improvised music helped deepen the way I listen to pop. It comes from broadening my understanding of the instrument, from watching Robair and Moe! Staiano and Donald Robinson and so many others.

So, don’t ever let anybody tell you this avant-garde stuff is an indulgent dead end. It’s the opposite.