The American drummer has released his second album with the Beat Music collective, influenced by the electronic production of Squarepusher and Aphex Twin. After collaborating with David Bowie and Brad Mehldau, his versatility continues to impress.

We’ve just commemorated the 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. You’re a big Nirvana fan – how did this music get into your life?

When I started playing drums at fifteen in 1995, there were no musicians in my family and I only had access to music through MTV and radio. Well, we couldn’t turn on MTV without seeing Nirvana, Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. I wanted to look like Dave Grohl from Nirvana, Matt Cameron from Soundgarden, or Chad Smith from Red Hot Chili Peppers … I was just a teenager who wanted to play the music of my time. Rock still occupies an important part of my DNA, not so much for its style as for its energy. Even with my acoustic quartet, which is pretty far from Nirvana, the same spirit is still there.

How did jazz make its way into such a context?

I was taking drum lessons with a great teacher, Joe Bergamini, and he placed a lot of importance on having a solid foundation. Jazz was one of these foundations. I had never had access to that music before and we started to study its technical aspects. He played me some recordings, starting with Buddy Rich’s. The closest i’d got to this style before was by playing in the high school big band. So Buddy Rich was the perfect front door for me. Then I listened to Tony Williams with the Miles Davis quintet. I didn’t understand everything that was happening intellectually, but in my body I felt a very strong sensation. I understood that I had to continue along this path.

When did you become interested in electronic music?

At university, a friend gave me a Squarepusher album, Feed Me Weird Things. I remember it as if it was yesterday: it was a burned CD and I even remember how the track titles were written with a marker pen. I felt the same way when I listened to Tony Williams for the first time. Again, it was not cerebral but physical. It was so exciting! I had goosebumps. I didn’t understand how the music was made, but it got me right in the gut. The feeling that persisted and I wanted to learn more.

Did you ever dance?

No! First of all, I was eighteen or nineteen years old at the time and I wasn’t allowed to go to a club yet. Socially, it wasn’t my thing, either. However, I was connected to the scene: Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, Photek, Luke Vibert …

Have you always wanted to produce music inspired by electronics?

The thing that interested me was the lack of drummers on these records. There are samples, programming, producer’s manipulations. I was inspired by that vocabulary, and tried to integrate it into my way of playing on an acoustic drum set. It’s less a question of trying to recreate electronic music than of absorbing it as naturally as possible.

But you can’t physically reproduce certain programmed rhythms …

That’s why it’s so exciting. It’s one thing to watch a drummer: even if you don’t understand everything, you can see him in action, and play the video a thousand times over. In the case of a Max Roach solo, it’s possible to learn by watching it. In the case of programming, it’s totally different. These artists are not drummers for the most part, they think differently and it’s exciting. I try not to think like a drummer, to change my perspective. I’m inspired by programmed beats, even if they are impossible to reproduce on a kit – that kind of thinking leads to interesting results. 

How would you define Beat Music? Is it a concept, a group, a collective?

A little bit of all that. It has changed over time. It started as an improvised project. It was mainly to gather musicians I admire and share influences with, so that we could easily improvise, using sonic textures to define our musical choices. On the other hand, though the new album had already been totally composed, I always trust the musicians’ personalities to develop it with their interpretations. I want to capture the common feeling that is emerging.

When you compose, do you always know whether the song will be for Beat Music or for your quartet?

I have a lot of trouble getting to work without knowing the destination of what I’m going to compose. Not only because each project has specific instrumentation, but also because I have the musicians themselves in mind. I want to take advantage of everyone’s qualities, and to know that we will have fun playing the same music every night that we are on tour.

What did the creation process for this album look like?

It’s the first time I’ve recorded a record in several stages. Generally, we rehearse, enter the studio and play while trying to be the best we can be. This time, because the music included a lot of details, and improvisation was not the focus, the interaction worked differently. I invested a lot of time on my demos, in gathering as much information as possible, both for the composition and the sound itself. Then, for instance, I brought in Jason Lindner to work on three songs, acting as a director. His job was to do what I had done, but much better! In this way he brought the music into his own world, and it came to life in a new way.

You also talk about microscopic improvisations. Can you give us some insight into this?

Let’s take a bass line, for example. Stu Brooks is one of the bass players on the album. The part I ask him to play was already composed. I’m not asking him to improvise in the traditional way. I provide him with the information with which, at any time, he can make his own choices about what he thinks is appropriate. It’s improvisation but it’s locked in the composition. It is not a question of modifying the notes that have been established, but of articulating them, for instance by placing an emphasis here or there, and thereby giving personality to the whole interpretation. Improvising and creating from nothing is one thing. But injecting temperament into a written part is something very special and that’s what I ask musicians to do.

How do Jason Lindner and BIGYUKI interact with synthesizers?

In appearance, they occupy a very similar space in the musical spectrum. But when you pay attention to the details, they are very different. Both are maestros in their field and they perfectly combine their respective elements. I’ve met many musicians with a great knowledge of production, able to quickly create the appropriate sounds, and I’ve also met many great improvisers. But I haven’t met many people who have these two qualities in equal parts. Jason and BIGYUKI fall into this category. It’s extremely valuable and it gave me a lot of confidence to get the sound I was looking for.

There are voices on the album (Gretchen Parlato, Cole Whittle, Jeff Taylor). How did you work them?

I worked by sampling original content – if only for issues surrounding rights. Spoken word has always been part of Beat Music’s universe. In the past, it was less about content than about texture: I was initially attracted by the sound a voice could produce and the effects placed on it, without worrying so much about the meaning … as if it were a synthesizer. This time, spoken word is more present, especially when it serves melody.w

Would you like your music to be played by DJ’s in clubs?

I would love that! Experiencing this kind of music is totally different depending on whether you listen to it with a mobile phone or with a good sound system. It is unrecognizable, much more so than in the case of acoustic music, mainly because of the predominance of low frequencies that form the structure. Emotion is born from this feeling. To be able to experience it in a club environment would be fantastic.

The album is called Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! Why the triple repetition?

Its an exclamation inspired by Ornette Coleman’s album titles. I’ve always liked that. I had this title before any music was created. I wanted something striking.

And each song is titled by a single short word: “Girl,” “Bones,” “Bud” …

Once again, for this album, I wanted things to be direct, incisive. For example, “Bullet” is titled like that because the melody is inspired by John Coltrane; I thought of “Trane,” then “Bullet train” (high speed train). In another case, “Human” is a way of affirming that this music is produced by humans, not by machines.

Did you discuss Beat Music with David Bowie when he recorded his album Blackstar?

Yes, he mentioned our album, Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations – which Tim Lefebvre plays on, as on Blackstar, too. He had listened to it, loved it and he wanted me to contribute some of the electronic elements that were on it. The simple fact that he was able to draw inspiration from our work was quite crazy. It was unreal to imagine him at home, with his headphones on and our music playing. It also served as a reference for what we did later.

Mark Guiliana – Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! (Motéma)

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union