Archive for the ‘Sympathy for the (Seattle) Drummer’ Category

Drummers often find themselves as second-class studio musicians as well.  Percussionists typically show up early since, as with live shows, they have the most to deal with.  Drums have to be set up, heads tuned, and then tested to get the desired sounds.  That whole process can take a couple of hours and must be completed before recording can begin. 

Meanwhile, the guitar and bass players amble in and stand around bored, tapping their feet while waiting on the drummer.  “And I think a lot of young bands just–even bands with more experience–they just really want to get through that process,” says Mike Musburger.  “And it puts the drummer on edge, ’cause they gotta get there first.  They gotta get their shit over with, quickly and as efficiently as possible, and then get on to playing.  And I think it winds up [with] a lot of [drummers]…when it does come time to perform, they’re not ready for it.  They’re not relaxed.”

Nirvana drummer Chad Channing, who now plays guitar and sings in Before Cars, has a suggestion for guitar players who’ve never played drums.

“Any guitar player should really spend at least some amount of time playing drums,” Channing offers, “even if they’ve never played before, or they’re not good.  Just take some time and try to learn a beat or something.  Just dabble into it a little bit.  You might even find you like it and end up becoming a fairly decent drummer by doing it, or at least, maybe get some idea of how difficult that job can be.”

Then there is Scott Vanderpool’s take on the percussionist’s ordeal.  He has played with Room Nine, the Young Pioneers, the Treeclimbers, Chemistry Set, the Green Pajamas, and Down With People.  How difficult has it been for him to play drums for six different bands?

“Well, you know,” says Vanderpool, “it’s just drums.”

Male drummers sometimes find themselves excluded from meeting women, due to the time-consuming process of breaking down and packing up a drum kit after a show, combined with physical exhaustion.

“When we’re done [playing], we have to schlep everything off, break it all down, put it all away,” says Green River’s Alex Shumway.  “And I mean, you’re talking about a lot of equipment, even for a small set.  It takes a long time.  And by the time you’re done with that, all the other guys are drunk and have the good girls.”

“‘C’mon, she’s cute!’”

“‘No, you’ve had 20 beers,’” says Shumway.  “‘That’s why she’s cute.’”

Even if the drummer gets to the bar in time, he’s typically in such a state of physical wretchedness that the women aren’t interested anyway.

“I mean, how sexy is that?” says Popdefect’s Nick Scott.  “You’re done with your punk rock show.  You’ve been drinking nonstop cheap beer for hours and you’re just bathed in sweat.

“You’re gonna go like, ‘Ya know, what?  Uh, you’re kinda cute!’” Scott continues.  “What are [the women] gonna say?  ‘You’re kinda disgusting!  Why don’t you go talk to somebody else?  You’re kinda freekin’ me out with your underwater wetness thing going on.’”

“When you go on tour–as a drummer–it’s like man, it’s totally physically demanding,” says Nirvana’s Chad Channing.  “You’re playing almost night after night. And you’re usually packing up and driving to the next show and what not.  So, it’s kinda rough in that aspect of it as well.”

Scott Schickler, who played guitar in the noise/rock Limp Richerds, realized the value that drummers possess.  Following his stint with the Limps, he taught himself to play drums and assumed that role with the Thrown Ups and Swallow.

 “I was a barely passable mediocre guitar player,” says Schickler.  “Now I’m a mediocre drummer.  And it’s just supply and demand.  As a mediocre guitar player, you have to hustle like a motherfucker to get a band together.  You know, because guitar players are a dime a dozen.  If you’re a mediocre drummer, you can do as I’ve done–and you can record and tour.  You know, the phone rings and rings.

“You can [practice] guitar at 3 am on a couch in an apartment,” Schickler continues.  “For drums, you need a…bomb shelter.  You need a bunker.”

Drummers expend an inordinate amount of energy.  While guitar players and singers prance around the stage, the drummer is busy working his whole body–often for hours at a time–night after night.

“To me, the drummers put out the most energy when playing and stuff.  I mean, it’s a full-body effort to put together,” says Nirvana’s Chad Channing.

“The judge of a really, really kick-ass show…[is] when the sweat soaks your jeans all the way down–below the knees,” says Popdefect’s Nick Scott (originally with the Showbox-era Psychopop.)

“You’re just, you know–soaked.  You’re wearing a water suit,” Scott adds.  “It’s ridiculous.”

Drummers don’t just expend more energy during a show.  They also have the added burden of setting up and breaking down their drum kit before and after each performance.  Although drummers with major label bands usually have roadies to perform those tasks, smaller bands often have to do all the work themselves.  Guitar players, by contrast, merely bring their guitars and amps on stage, plug in, tune their instruments, and they’re done.  After the show, they unplug, pack up their guitars and amps in the van, and get to socialize with women (yes, that’s a sexist statement, but since nearly all the drummers we’re dealing with here are straight men, it’s women they want to meet.)

Tad Doyle sang and played guitar with TAD.  Prior to TAD, however, he was a gifted drummer with H-Hour.  His switch from drums to guitar reflects a frustration common with percussionists.

“I was really tired of playing drums,” Doyle recalls.  “It was kind of like I was–the Marines, you know, I was the first guy in and the last guy out, and always dealing with gear.  While the rest of the band is like, smoking cigarettes and having a beer and talking to girls, I was always messing with my gear.  So, I got tired of that.  And I said, ‘You know what, I’m gonna play guitar.  It’s a lot easier.  Move an amp, show up with a guitar—quick–plug in.’”

“I’ve been sort of viewed upon as a second-class citizen,” says Mike Musburger, who has played drums in a number of Seattle bands including the Posies and the Fastbacks.  “And it’s very frustrating, ’cause I’ve always had a lot to offer other than just playing drums.”

Despite the second-class citizen status, drummers are more highly valued than guitar players.  Shake a tree hard enough and a dozen decent guitarists will fall out.  Even musicians with limited skills can pick up an electric guitar, turn up the distortion and volume, and play a few barre chords that sound like something.  I even play guitar in front of my class twice each semester and most of the time I don’t embarrass myself too much.

Drums are a different story.  Getting behind a drum kit and playing competently is harder than it seems.  Even so-called simple beats require the drummer to use all four limbs in unison or at different tempos.  The arms are playing the various drum heads and cymbals, while one leg plays the high-hat cymbal and the other the bass drum pedal.  Keeping all elements going at the same time, while maintaining a consistent tempo requires incredible dexterity and physical prowess.  In addition to all of that, the drummer must be on the same page as the other musicians–particularly the bass player.

“Guitar players–I understand–that they have to move their fingers around.  They have to do fingering chords and what not,” says Green River’s Alex Shumway.  “And it’s very difficult, ’cause I can play guitar to some extent, but I’m not that good.  Drummers, however, we are working all four limbs.  Sometimes we’re working ’em at different time progressions at certain points.  And guitar players–a lot of the time don’t understand that–that [drummers] will be doing something off-time, but on-time at the same time.  And they don’t get it.  I think that we actually have to listen to things more than they do, ’cause we have to hear where they’re at.  They have to listen to where I’m at, but I actually have to listen to everything that’s going on around me.  If I can’t hear them, I’ve gotta play it by rote in my ear.”

“Guitar playing does not necessarily require great technical skill in order to be competent and play rock n roll on stage,” Jack Endino states.  “You just need to play the right chords and have good songs that contain the right chords.  So, it’s all about having good songs.  And good songs don’t necessarily have to be really hard to play on the guitar.  Whereas drumming, there’s a certain level of physical proficiency that you have to have in order to get away with it.  Otherwise, it just sounds bad.

“A band with a shitty guitar player and a good drummer will still be perceived as a great band–if their songs are decent,” Endino adds.

“You [can] get a lot farther with a bad guitar player than you can with a bad drummer,” he continues, “because the bad drummer–there’s no hiding it.  He’s the framework.  He’s the whole pulse, the heartbeat, the whole deal.  And if you don’t have a solid metronome behind you, your music has no power.”

“It’s up to the drummer to really kind of keep that drive going,” says Chad Channing of Nirvana, “and keep everybody moving.  And then, at the same time too, working with the bass player to help keep the whole back-beat and the meat of the songs–pushing forward.  And then like the guitar player and the singer, they’re like the frosting and the icing on the cake so to speak.”

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?’”