Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Let's Talk About Drums!

Okay, here's the story:

I've always been a crooner, ever since I led singing in church back in the day. But I never had another instrument. Four years of trumpet, 5th through 8th grade, but that didn't stick. I never even learned to read music properly. I learned most of the hymns in church orally, though I stood in front of everyone with a hymnal and waved my hand around like I knew what I was doing. Basically I was mimicking the church elders, who, let's face it, couldn't hold a candle to my stylings. It's true! I was a goddamn progeny prodigy ... in a white bread Protestant church ... just like Michael Jackson ... or something.

Then there was a sad attempt at electric guitar in high school. Nothing to report here, except it was a cheesy Fender knock-off with a Van Halen paint job, and I never progressed past the opening sequence of "One" by Metallica. Ppthbb. I did have some support: my assistant principal/football coach came over and tried to show me a few things. But again, it just didn't stick. I was a poser, a dork with a guitar and no real motivation to learn to play it other than looking cool. Clearly, even then, writing was my main thing.

In college I did what every red-blooded American hippie does: get a shitty li'l acoustic guitar and learn some CSN&Y. Here I had some success. At one point I actually had a 12-string Fender acoustic that sounded great ... for about half a song, before I had to retune it. I think I spent more time tuning than playing that fucker. But still no real breakthroughs in the instrument department here. I did, however, learn to tune a guitar well and FAST, and my rhythm was solid. So that's good.

Then there was the band. Around senior year, Christopher Austin started teaching me hand drums, mostly congas and djembe. This went well! And I took to it right away. I eventually played gigs in 1992-93 with Christopher, Kel, Josh, D, Brian, and Ted (plus or minus a couple of others depending on the gig) under the loopy moniker Buli Zaja (BOO-lee ZAH-zhah). I wrote songs, sang, and played those congas into the ground. It was a good time and we were some sexy mo-fos. Most people of that vintage still fondly remember the Earth Day show in Dunn Meadow where all our hippie friends came out to shake, or our first live gig as BZ ... opening for The Drovers at Second Story! *swoon*

At the same time, I was doing the radio theatre thing, notably Hayward Sanitarium. I was also on the verge of graduating and trying to figure out "what next?" with my lowly English degree. The band and Hayward were the two big projects in front of me, so I decided to let Fate make the choice: whichever project took off, I would follow, as I loved doing them both about equally. Somewhere in there I traded my axes for a drum kit, which I no longer have.

The band broke up after about 6 months and everybody went their separate ways, literally. D ended up in Chicago for a time; Kel I think went back on the road, touring with the Dead, back when you could do that kind of thing; Josh went away to god knows where; Ted I think is still in Indy; Brian I think went back to Connecticut; and Christopher ended up in Cincinnati and points beyond.

Meanwhile, Hayward demos were receiving favorable reviews from Big Names in radio, and it eventually was picked up by NPR Playhouse (back when NPR still did that sort of thing) in 1994. So I got more and more into voice work, audio production, and script writing, and eventually worked in a recording studio. I still banged my bongos in the dirt sometimes, and even sat in with some bands here and there (National Groove/Fambooey, The Green Jam, etc.), and played on a couple of radio jingles. But I played less and less in general, and ultimately dropped out of the "drum circle" scene altogether too. I think I got a bit snobby about that kind of thing. I also think I managed my time a little better, not content with bumming around until something cool happened. I knew I was capable of Making Cool Happen. So let's go.

When the radio theatre thing did not ultimately lead to Something Big, beyond more vanity projects, I took what I had learned about voice, timing, writing, sound effects, and rhythm and piled it all into poetry, spoken word performance, and, finally, MATRIX, around 1997-98. Here I kind of quit playing drums altogether, except for some small percussion as part of a performance. I don't think it was a conscious decision necessarily. I just didn't get that much out of it anymore by itself, and definitely did not get off on carrying my congas everywhere. I could have gotten another, more portable drum. But by then I was really, REALLY into the writing and performing thing. Why dilute my energies, right?

I still do radio theatre, mostly just voice work and sound effects, but I'm all freelance and stuff about it, and that's fine. Lately, though, my thoughts have returned to beating skins. Actually they've been returning every since sound effects gigs started popping up around 2000. It's that whole hand-eye percussion thing, which I think is what attracted me to sound effects and drums together at about the same time. I still have my congas ... but the lambast I used to enjoy whilst pounding the hell out of a big drum ... is pretty much gone, and has been for a while. I like to listen. I like to hear what's going on around me. I also like ensemble playing. I think I missed being part of a band more than I missed just playing. So how does one insert oneself into an environment where one can back up other musicians, basically be the rhythm section, as opposed to endless variations on the same hand-drum soloing?

The Irish Seisiun.

Mars plays fiddle, as does a co-worker. She started bringing me to sessions when we first started going out, and I was happy just watching and listening. But I kept eying the bodhran players. I never got into Irish drumming. I stayed with Afro-Cuban stuff, mainly because that's what I was taught and what the folk/rock music I was making then required.

But after a little (very little) coaxing, I asked a session drummer if I could try out his drum.

BAM! Holding the tipper like a pen + playing air guitar = the basics of bodhran. It didn't take long before I was seriously hooked. A year later, playing (and knowing when not to play) is all coming back to me, and I think I've figured out how this fits with everything else I'm doing. (I'm real big on compartmentalization, in case you hadn't noticed.) I think I'm on to something long term here.

All this to say: I haven't bought a drum in about 14 years. Last year I bought a shite bodhran off eBay, and it's been a good beginner's instrument but honestly, barely adequate from the start. (And garnered more than a few sideways looks from other session-goers. I'll have to write another entry sometime about the reputation bodhranii have at Irish sessions. It's pretty funny -- and pretty spot-on.) It was clear (to everybody at the seisiun, not just me) after a few months that I was in need of a proper instrument -- if only so everybody could hear me! Seriously, for the effort I was putting in, the sound I was getting out was abysmal. Thwappy like a wet paper sack is a pretty good summation. So I did my homework, talked to other players, and contacted a few makers, here and abroad.

Next week (or thereabouts) I shall take possession of a 15 x 6 tunable, curly maple bodhran custom made by Mike Quinlan out of Chicago. I'm thrilled!

Incidentally, I found Mike and decided on him mainly based on his work, his reputation, and his integrated tuning system. But what sealed the deal was this connection: Jackie Moran (formerly with the Drovers, now playing trad Irish with Gan Bua) plays Mike Quinlan bodhrans exclusively.

Ah yes, synergy!

I may even get back into gigging at some point too. We'll see.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A rare post re: work

Dear Cow-orkers Who Keep Bringing Projects into My Office:

That's it, I'm building a wall and it shall be made of the stacks of proof you insist on bringing me! Just FYI.