Sympathy for the (Seattle) Drummer, Part 1

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Sympathy for the (Seattle) Drummer

I wrote this piece a few years ago, and unfortunately had to delete it, for word count purposes, from the final manuscript of what would become The Strangest Tribe.  So it gets an afterlife here on the blog.  While this excerpt focuses on Seattle drummers, it can apply just as well to percussionists everywhere.

 Unnamed Seattle Guitar player: “Drummers are sluts and whores…an unfaithful lot.”

Unnamed Seattle Drummer: “Guitar players are pussies.”

Drummers are the engine of the band.  Repeat that to yourself.

Some Seattle bands have a reputation for going through drummers like some of us go through bottled water.  Skin Yard, for example, employed five; Nirvana, four; the Fastbacks, who knows; TAD, three; Pearl Jam, four, etc.  Of course there are exceptions.  Mudhoney has employed Dan Peters throughout its two decade-plus tenure, and Matt Cameron played drums with Soundgarden from 1986 through the band’s 1997 demise (and during its recent reunion).

A weird, conflicting outsider relationship exists between a drummer and the rest of the band.  This dynamic is worth exploring, and so we will do so here.

For many of us, the drummer is the guy in the way-way back.  Once in a while he gets a bone thrown his way–a drum solo here, an extra fill there, a final thud at the end of a song.  Mostly, though, the drummer is isolated from the audience.  It’s the guitar player and the preening lead singer that get all the attention.  The game is Guitar Hero, not Drummer Hero.  Yet, in a lot of ways, the drummer is significantly more important than the guitar player.  Most of us just don’t realize it.

The drummer literally drives the band.  He lays down the beat.  He propels the band forward, makes it hover for a moment, then lurches it ahead.  The drummer makes the prettier parts prettier and the nastier parts more powerful.  Simply put, a band is not really a band without one.

A typical four-piece rock outfit has a lead singer who might also play rhythm guitar (or bass), a lead guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer.  The drummer is the outsider by nature.  He is not playing a stringed instrument like the rest of his band-mates.  In fact, he’s not playing a melodic instrument at all.  He is primal; a Neanderthal who can count only to four, who can communicate his art only by banging on things.  He is physically separated from the rest of the band by his drum kit and cymbals.  He can’t really interact with the audience, so fans probably don’t know who he is during breaks or after the show.  A drummer, in a lot of ways, is a rock band’s second-class citizen.

Legendary producer and Skin Yard guitarist Jack Endino, who has also played drums and bass, re-tells a drummer joke.

“‘What was the last thing the drummer said before he was fired from the band?’  And the punch line is, ‘Hey guys, why don’t we play one of my songs?’”

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