Rock-n-Roll. Biz: Brian I know you are very versatile drummer, and in Yeah Yeah Yeahs you have gone from Punk Beats to Electronic Triggers and yet you have a passion for free Jazz. Which style conjured you up first?
Brian: I’ve always had a love for various styles of music, and grew up at a time and place that provided me with exposure (pre-internet) to the wide world of music. Drum teachers and music teachers would introduce me to different types of music, and also the histories and cultures from which they came. From there I would find friends and other musicians that would be into a bunch of different stuff, too, like, for example, reading Miles Davis’s autobiography, learning about the uproar when Stravinsky premiered the ‘Rite of Spring,’ and playing Black Sabbath covers. Pretty soon I was able to see that different musics are all forms of expression, regardless of stylistic aspects, and I could find ways to relate to each form whether it be emotionally, intellectually, or aesthetically. I connected most deeply early on with jazz, punk, and classical, but I think the first style of music that I really got into as a ‘style’ was ’50’s Doo-Wop. But, whether it be Biggie Smalls, King Tubby, Dolly Parton, The Misfits, or late Beethoven string quartets there is way to find a common thread that links them and also retains each one’s individual integrity .
Rock-n-Roll. Biz: I saw you last play with Peter Aaron it was a very interesting show, in the tradition of avant-garde noise. Can you easily jump from one style to another?
Brian: I do find myself as a musician that jumps from one setting to another, and can do that because that is me: I have a love of many different forms of music, and respect the different forms for what they are. Also, I am very much a student of music and with that am able to understand the inner workings of these musics. I love classical so I’ll listen to it and study it, and surround myself with other musicians that play it and love it, too; I love jazz so I’ll do the same with that; I love punk and I’ll do the same with that. My formal musical training is primarily in jazz and my technical ability on the drumset developed mostly in that context. In addition, I do have a formal background with classical music. This gives me the ability to apply that same knowledge to different stylistic approaches to music making. It’s not that musical styles are unrelated, but just the opposite, music is music and tends to function according to the same principles. Once you start seeing the similarities then it’s possibility to start applying the knowledge in a universal way, and also to start appreciating and understanding the subtitles and nuances that differentiates the styles.
Rock-n-Roll. Biz: I know you play in many other side projects. Do you think it’s important for musicians to play in other projects? Does it make your steady band stronger or keeps you experimenting with others ? What’s more important to you?
Brian: For me, I am a particular musician that likes to play in various settings. Working with different people has me participating collaboratively to either help someone realize his/her vision or as a team in sharing ideas. The main theme in both is the same: to make good music. In opening myself to different settings I am requiring myself to stay open as a person and musician. This is an AMAZING way to grow and to learn. Sometimes it takes working with someone to help bring out the better parts of ourselves that would be hard to reach otherwise. This is also why it’s important to work with people you trust and respect. When you make music, especially new music, it takes a little bit of giving up control and to respect the unknown. It’s a beautiful process but happens best when it’s supported by people with whom you share a good connection. Not every musician is ‘designed’ to work in a wide variety of musical settings. But, the main idea is to stay open. In our daily lives we grow and change continually, and our music tends to reflect that. In staying open, we get past preconceptions about ourself and what music ‘should’ be. Working with different people is a great way to do this, but it can also happen with the right attitude – one that is humble and enthusiastic about DISCOVERING music in the more hidden parts of ourselves. In terms of how this relates to my steady band, the one that exists continually throughout the multitude of ‘side projects,’ it helps me to ‘bring more to the table’ so to speak. It’s like, when we reconvene, I have these remarkable and diverse experiences with me that I can share, kind of like when you do a lot of traveling and visit a bunch of countries and have wild times, you can then share them in your songs when you come back home. Also, in working with different people, I find myself amongst very talented and accomplished musicians that push me to be a better musician myself. I then take this with me to my steady band. The most important thing though is to work with people you love. And, in the steady band, you love and support each other a lot, and that comes out in the music.
Rock-n-Roll. Biz: When you play Rock songs do you think in Jazz terms? Meaning do you think that here I will do this cool fill or things just flow?
Brian: There is definitely some overlap between what one might call ‘rock’ thinking and what one might call ‘jazz’ thinking. You can find examples of each in each. Like with ‘rock’ we think of simplicity, like in a steady snare backbeat or something. Well, we can turn to Art Blakey playing a ridiculously slamming shuffle beat for an example of that in jazz. And, with ‘jazz’ we often think of improvisation or complexity, right? Well, we can turn to Keith Moon or Mitch Mitchell drum fills for examples of improvisation in rock, or to prog thrash bands like the Locust for example of complexity in rock. There are many ways in which I apply my background in jazz to playing rock. One is sensitivity, as in there exists many subtle aspects of the music that deserve attention that would be bulldozed over otherwise. It can come in countless ways such as in supporting the phrasing of a vocal melody, in feeling the different characteristics between guitar tones, in understanding the finesse in particular aspects of a beat, or in respecting the power of leaving space. Another way is improvisation, as in the music that is to happen comes alive in the moment. In the best improvisors there is a seamless unity between improvisation and composition. The usefulness of improvisation in a rock setting is that it connects the music to the moment of its making. There are many factors which can make a song feel different from night to night – the energy of the crowd, the mood of the band members, the placement of the song in a set, and how the music is being interpreted at the moment on stage. To be able to adept to these factors and steer the music accordingly helps to express the song most effectively at that moment. An approach of jazz that can be applied to rock is with ‘hearing’ simultaneous layers of musical material. It’s like if you think of an example music – its energies and its sounds – there exists within it many layers of information. This is very similar to a scientist zooming into an object with a microscope. On the surface what is seen is one layer but as you zoom in and get closer then you start to see all of these other layers that are existing simultaneously. Jazz often expresses these more microscopic layers. When I hear music, it is possible to hear the more subtle layers of musical material that are happening in response and concurrently to the main ‘surface’ elements. Examples of this are the way a saxophone would play obbligato behind a vocalist, the way a pianist would ‘comp’ behind a soloist, or the way a drummer would play syncopated phrasing to embellish an improvisation. These are all subtle and shifting layers within a larger whole.
Rock-n-Roll. Biz: What advice can you give to drummers starting out or currently in bands. Should they play with other bands / people? Does it make them better drummers?
Brian: Advice I can give to drummers starting out or currently in bands… hmm, that’s tough because everybody is different and requires different types of advice. A good general statement is to look to the greats in music that are with us now and that have come before us. Music and music history is filled with the guidance we need to help us to discover ourselves as the musicians that we are/are to be. Also, being active and looking for our peers for guidance is good, especially in the sense of being involved with the community. Music is definitely a community and filled with micro-communities and participating in it is pretty much essential for growth and development. In terms of playing with other bands/people, I think that it is good for expanding our abilities of playing music, broadening our knowledge of music, and deepening our understanding of music. Again, not everybody is cut out to be involved with a multitude of approaches to music making, but the main idea is to stay open. For example, we can think of music in terms of how we think about life. It’s not that there is one ‘right’ way to play music. It’s not like this style is ‘right’ or that style is ‘wrong’ – so many people play music that way and this is when ego or issues of ‘self-identity’ start to get in the way, and walls start to be built. The actuality is that there are a multitude of ways that are existing simultaneously. In one club you have people playing metal and in the club down the street you have a techno-dance party. The main thing for me is attitude and the purpose behind playing. I am a believer in music performed as a humble offering; we have the opportunity to share with people the expression of the days of our lives, and it is with that privilege that we are to provide a moment for transformation and transcendence, that reaching heights of great joy and even bliss, all with the power of our talents as gifts and the unlimited possibilities presented in our creativity.
(Photo by Dave Vann)
Rock-n-Roll. Biz: Let’s talk about YYY for a moment. I feel that your band Yeah Yeah Yeahs likes to plan a lot, and then drop a kick ass album play a tour and then they go into underground to plan the next bomb? What are you guys planning next maybe you can describe in a few words? Is it space rock, electro, free jazz?
Brian: Yeah Yeah Yeahs has a found a method that is good for us – we like to work in cycles. We’ll make a record, tour and promote it for about a year, then take time off. The time off is really important. It allows for us to recoup from a very busy period. Once we begin to settle from the experiences of touring and such, we begin to connect further with our lives back at home, and start to grow from the previous musical material. We’ll then take time for ourselves at home whether it be doing different projects or whatever, and then after a while, we’ll reconvene. At that moment we’ll know we are in a different place from when we last left off. The process of making new music starts from that place. Some bands like to stay active throughout, but this is what works for us and is our way of staying active. It is effective in maintaining longevity as well as helping to keep the material fresh and exciting.
Rock-n-Roll. Biz: I know you have played some interesting places and stages in your time what was your favorite place to play? Or maybe some epic moment from your carrier?
Brian: YYYs have played some really big shows over the years, and have covered much of the span of the globe, but those hometown shows still get me, the ones loaded with closest friends and family. I remember when we played Radio City Music Hall, a venue which has enough history in itself to be overwhelming, my grandparents where there in the audience. My grandfather used to take his kids there to see shows when they were young, and his memories of the place were like that. And, now here I am, his grandson, on the stage itself – BOOM! Nothing left to do but play my heart out, and to do it while sharing the stage with the bandmates that I love and trust dearly.