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Toiling in the back behind the flashy frontmen and soloing guitars, drummers might seem like an afterthought. But taking a second to notice how the drummer is doing can give a whole new perspective on the combined effort of a band. If the drummer is lagging or isn't excited to be there, the show is probably palpably off. But an excited drummer is a thing of beauty—like watching a thoroughbred break inside for the finish, there is an exhilaration of witnessing physical and technical prowess. That, and they make the best faces.
City Pages spoke to a handful of local drummers—JT Bates, Jeremy Hanson, Arlen Peiffer, and Anthony Poretti—who are passionate and energetic, put on a hell of a live show, and are in more bands than you can shake a drumstick at, in order to shed some limelight on the backline and find out what it takes to become a drummer in demand.
Everyone's voice comes from someplace
Growing up in a musical household helps. Both Bates (Alpha Consumer, the Pines, Fat Kid Wednesdays, and more) and Hanson (Tapes n' Tapes, Hildur Victoria, Biological Father) grew up with fathers who were bandleaders. Hanson got his first drum kit at age six and upgraded to a full-size set at eight, having to stretch his arms above his head to reach the cymbals. Hanson's first band—with his father and guitar-playing brother Jacob—very nearly called themselves "Hanson" (they ducked that and went with the Hanson Blues Band instead). Bates recalls being in awe of the style of the drummers he saw coming in to play with his father's groups, and decided on the spot that was where he wanted to be. Starting young instilled a lifelong love of music, but not everyone finds his place right away.
Poretti (Absent Arch, Spirits of the Red City, Combat Astronomy) and Peiffer (Cloud Cult, Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps) both began playing in high school after bouncing around on other instruments. Peiffer and his high school friends needed a drummer for their pop-punk band, and when no one came along, Peiffer just decided to do it himself, bought himself a cheap kit and started cracking away at it. Poretti similarly jammed with friends before landing on the drums. Once he got there, though, he says, "that's where my voice was. I was just trying to play music on other instruments but I was trying to talk with the drums." Whether through nurture or necessity, once that voice has been found, it's hard to stop using it.
Inspiration comes from everywhere
Bates and Poretti (the older two of the four) cited jazz drummer Max Roach as an inspiration. Bates in particular noted that after seeing Roach play he "had [his] world melted. He's one of those guys who feels no need to impress anyone, so he doesn't." Poretti also cited another drummer's drummer and Blue Note Records artist, Eric Dolphy, and in particular the Out To Lunch! record as what made him put away his guitar for good and focus on drums. Both were also quick to note their band members as current inspirations—Bates cited the members of jazz combo Fat Kid Wednesdays, musicians with whom he has been making music in some form for 17 years now, which has mutated into "something totally different," while Poretti acknowledged the "killer songwriters" of Spirits of the Red City.
Brought up in a blues and rock environment, Hanson was surrounded by drummers like Buddy Miles and Mitch Mitchell, but credits a different drummer for opening him up to new experimentation: Jon Fishman of Phish. Although Fishman may not be the most technically excellent drummer, Hanson noted laughingly, he was a constant force in a band that pushed changes and demanded a shifting energy. Peiffer gives credit to the high-energy drumming of New Found Glory's Cyrus Bolooki as the catalyst for sticking to and wanting to explore the drums. Judging from Peiffer's giddy smile when he is onstage, it was the right choice.
It's okay to be in the back and own it
Despite the temptations of tricks and the theatrics of drumming, there was a common epiphany about the role of the drummer. Peiffer boiled it down: "It's to be simple, to have some restraint. You don't need to be flashy, you can just be that guy in the background and just be real solid." A drum teacher told Bates in high school, "When I sit down at the drums, no matter whose band it is, it's my band now." That sense of ownership implies a responsibility to listen to all the band members and be confident enough to keep the rhythm together so that the other musicians have the same touchstone. With large bands like the nine-member Spirits of the Red City, Poretti says he feels as though he is part of a conversation that takes place between the performers, and that the percussion seeks to fill the "negative space" of the conversation.
Another aspect that everyone could agree on was not succumbing to the temptation of stage risers. Lifting the drummer up cuts him off from the actual vibrations of the band, stifling the conversation. Hanson expressed a particular frustration with risers, and Bates recalled a particular drummer who brought his own risers with him, which the other musicians derisively called "ego-planks."
Try everything and have faith
Since the drummer plays such a foundational role, it relieves some of the pressure to focus on one type of music, allowing drummers to play across the spectrum of styles and sounds. Aside from rock, folk, country, and punk, Bates and Poretti are noted for their free-jazz improvisations. In order to challenge himself, Hanson has made a venture into jazz territory with his new band, Biological Father, which he said was a necessary respite from falling into a pattern of playing songs the same way, especially during a prolonged tour. With his intense focus while playing, like a chemist mixing solutions, Hanson says that his focus is "to listen to whatever group I'm in and feel that instead of bring something that I've already learned."
There is also a Rube Goldberg quality to drummers: There are infinite configurations of the drums themselves, and drummers are willing to use anything to get the sound they want—chains, bells, saucepans, trashcans, tin cans, paper cups. Poretti offers, by way of example, "If you were to make a guitar out of a car door and one string, that's a big thing to put on the table, but with percussion, it's not so distracting, you can add to other people's sounds." A part of his regular kit is a pot he had used for soup until it fell out of a cupboard and rang with a unique resonance. The possibilities are endless.
And that's the gleam in Bates's eye. "That's my insanity," he says. "It's all sounds to me. It's infinite. If you really think about it, how many different ways can you hit this thing? It's like a leap of blind faith—I don't know if anyone else hears this differently but I do, so I guess that's what I have to give to the world."