I was becoming bored of (and spending a small fortune on) playing in the Toxic Twins Aerosmith tribute band, and wanted to make new music at the drums. I quit with the firm intention of not playing any more rock for a while, unless it was of the ‘feral pop’ variety discussed by Charlie Bramley (2017), or in projects with Stephen Wheel or the Eruptörs. I had also recently burnt all my bridges with the London musical theatre fringe circuit by fathering a child and therefore not being in a position to do gigs for free any more. I was still playing in pop-noir electro-swing band, Sweet Tooth, whose gigs and rehearsals were consistently beautiful, immersive quasi-cinematic experiences that kept me technologically on the edge of my seat, but I wanted to express myself a bit more on the drums – to breathe, move, listen, respond and emote. Jazz might have been the logical vehicle for such an endeavour, had I not long ago abandoned its oppressive subtleties and sophistication for a post-quiet performance aesthetic that allows me to play as loud as I feel I need.
At one of the monthly Cabaret Futura events hosted by legendary London musician and curator (and one-time olde-English executioner), Richard Strange, I absorbed the performance of spoken word artist and self-proclaimed “shouter of words”, Oh Standfast. Having seen him play at another event a few months prior, I was excited to be bombarded by his bombastic bardery for a full fifteen minutes and gave him a lift home after discovering we lived in neighbouring regions of north London. My rock covers holiday inspired me to contact him later by email, and he was curiously accepting of my invitation to meet in a rehearsal room to see what would happen. I confessed at our first session, I had been struck by a video that caught my attention on Facebook, of a drummer (and bassist and keyboard player, but I wasn’t at all interested in them) playing along to this advertisement for Jones’ Truck Rental and Storage.
One of the things I most liked as we jammed was how Oh Standfast did not recite things exactly the same way every time. This was perfect! I needed to listen, react like lightning, stay in the moment, and play. We found it helped for me to count “1, 2, 3, 4” in to each ‘tune’, although the tempo at which I did this was not necessarily indicative of the speed at which we would take a given poem; it functioned more as an indication of when we should start. At times, Oh Standfast clearly followed my rhythm, although he would phrase things in the way the words dictated, so I needed simultaneously to follow him. The interplay between sections of swinging momentum, and moments of rubato and responsiveness, was intensely exciting for me as we learned and developed our mutual grove; the liveness in our collaboration was a thrill.
Although the pieces were very short, the intensity of each was profound. I deliberately avoided writing any ‘charts’. I audio-recorded our efforts in rehearsals, but also studiously avoided listening to the results. I wanted to learn this stuff in my body, head and hands (Merleau-Ponty 1945; Nancy 2007; Sheets-Johnstone 2009), to know the music as aesthetic experience (Shusterman 2000, 2008). We worked out no visual cues for each other either, as we discovered we did not look up much when we played (despite having rearranged furniture and instruments in the room to face one another); we negotiated all by sound and feel.
Three of the pieces we play have more traditional, repetitive drum patterns, although they are through-composed to the extent that this suits the material. These tracks are “Tabloid” (a quasi-rap sort of about passengers, pasties and politics), “Bag for Life” (to my mind a country-inspired, upbeat observational comedic punk poem about consumerism) and “Gourmet” (an homage to food served in less-than-appropriate vessels). The other two are, respectively, “Meal for One” (a melodramatic ballad to dining alone on instant microwave meals) and “Judge’s Notes” (a parody of comments made by adjudicators in TV ‘talent’ shows). We set a date to record our epic four-minute set in a studio at IMCP.
When we made the recordings we did a few takes (usually no more than three) of each song, and there was pleasure in getting these spot-on while retaining the essence of real-time, energetic musicking and fun. The trickiest corner to nail, towards the end of “Bag for Life”, was resolved when we finally decided to stop putting a count in a silence (the count had been my suggestion to help us ensure consistency), and instead do it by feel, which worked, satisfyingly, on the first attempt. This reinforced for me the importance of understanding and knowing music in a deep, feelingful way, without thinking about it consciously. The exception to my ‘no-practice’ rule for myself was that, ahead of the recording session, I’d practised over and over with a rehearsal recording of Oh Standfast reciting “Judge’s Notes” because this was especially tricky for me and involved many different time signatures, feels and grooves (should one wish to conceive of them as such). I was delighted that, on the day of recording, my collaborator recited this piece with variations from the rehearsal recording, and a little differently each time too. After nailing the piece in recording, I transcribed the “Judge’s Notes” drum part for reference (below), to see how our music might appear when coded (entirely inappropriately) in standard staff notation. Most of the instructions on the score are replaceable, transient and secondary to listening and responding in the moment of live collaboration with the shouter of words.
Six months after making the recording, we reconvened for a half-hour rehearsal three days ahead of a gig – our first and only to date as this blog entry goes to press. We agreed it felt good, acknowledged our mutual surprise at this, decided not to over-do things ahead of the big night, and went home. The gig was a marvellous experience. The stage was huge, and the audience of 500+ tipsy Freshers’ Week students was bustling. The band before us played singalong pop/rock covers, and the next act was the butt-kicking rock singer Erika with Skunk Anansie’s drummer and band. Oh Standfast was fresh from a summer of solo festival gigs and a seasoned performer in front of new audiences. I was my usual mess of anxiety, terror and self-deprecation. Our set was electric. Oh Standfast played the audience, took several dramatic pauses and made me think on the spot. I had to slow down and speed up for quarter-seconds at a time, wait for up to a minute, poised to strike the next drum and/or cymbal, and once we were finished there was laughter and applause. I took these as positive signs.
Bramley, C. and Smith, G.D. 2017. Feral pop: the participatory power of improvised popular music. In G.D. Smith, Z. Moir, M. Brennan, S. Rambarran and P. Kirkman, eds., The Routledge research companion to popular music education. Abingdon: Routledge.
Merleau-Ponty, M. 1945. Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge.
Nancy, J.-L. 2007. Listening. Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
Sheets-Johnstone, M. 2009. The corporeal turn: an interdisciplinary reader. Exeter: Imprint Academic.
Shusterman, R. 2000. Performing live: aesthetic alternatives for the ends of art. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.
Shusterman, R. 2008. Body consciousness: a philosophy of mindfulness and somaesthetics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.