A Local Indie Label Gives the Drummers Some
Brian DeRan's current favorite drummer joke is, by his own admission, unprintable, but he knows plenty of others. His next favorite? "How can you tell when there's a drummer at the door? The knock's not steady."
DeRan has pretty much heard them all. Not only is he a sometimes roadie/tour manager for bands such as Modest Mouse and June of 44, he's also something of an amateur percussionist himself. But the drummer jokes really came rolling in during the three years he spent putting together the new Membranaphonics compilation for Monitor Records, the Baltimore-based label he co-owns. The album features 10 of the rock demimonde's best and most underrated percussionists going solo.
It sounds like the setup for the ultimate drummer joke, but Membranaphonics provides a most pleasant surprise. "I think everyone thought it was going to be a drum solo record--you know, who can move their arms faster," DeRan says. Instead the album brings talented musicians who usually sit behind the rest of the band to the forefront for a sharp comp of widely varied tracks, none of which resemble someone showing off at Mars Music.
Sure, Kyle Crabtree of the Shipping News plays a shifting, shuffling beat on his track, "To Drown Is to Live," but the emphasis is clearly on the limpid guitar line he drapes over the top. Simone Pace (Blonde Redhead) and Baltimore-based Jon Theodore (Golden, Will Oldham) break out the drummer's traditional enemy--the drum machine--to create layered electronic beatscapes with only a bit of organic skin-pounding. (Theodore's Kraftwerk-meets-ZZ Top track, "Cruising East Lorain St.," is a set highlight and, according to DeRan, is getting radio play as far away as Istanbul.) On "Semi-Detached," Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty doesn't even play drums; Jerry Busher provides a spartan beat while Canty overdubs a tres-'81 new-wave tune and warbles the lyrics himself. Chris Freeland, drummer for Baltimore's own Oxes, recruits local scenesters Dawn Mercurio and Sarah Perrich to lend their voices to his minor-key drums-and-guitar study "Bursts." Only Stormandstress drummer Kevin Shea offers a true drum solo, and his lengthy (perhaps too long) untitled track shies away from mere chops displays in favor of subtle, textural explorations and impassioned jazzy fusillades.
Shea's track, which ends the album, was the first commissioned, and Shea himself helped inspire the project, DeRan says: "I went and saw Stormandstress play on one of their first tours, and I was pretty taken by his drumming--not 4/4, much longer measures being thought about. And he's just a really great drummer." At the time, DeRan was rooming with current Orthrelm drummer Josh Blair, who was "really on the jazz tip, doing these fills and rolls, offbeat timing, and everything," he says. "I started thinking about all these guys that I know who were into that but were always stuck doing one-two-three-four-AAAHHH! and doing what they can with that. I knew that they had it and wanted to sort of shine a little bit more."
It took DeRan three years to get Membranaphonics together, in part, he says, because, well, "drummers are sort of--lazy is a hard word. [But] they don't set priorities." He says several drummers he knows got mad at him because they had been excluded, only to have him remind them, "I asked you three years ago." He gave the invitees no guidelines. "People were, like, 'Well, what do you want? Do you want a drum solo?'" he says. "I just sort of left it up to them, whatever they felt comfortable making."
Perhaps the comp turned out to be so good and so diverse in part because of that drummer stereotype as the band slacker/village idiot, a reputation that must surely rankle even the most self-assured players. Membranaphonics offers beleaguered beat-keepers a chance to prove something. Don Caballero drummer Damon Che's "Oh, Suzanna" provides another highlight, as Che augments an intricate, angular performance on guitar with a powerful and precise performance behind the kit--bass guitar isn't missed, nor are vocals or any other instruments. "I find that when most people are asked to contribute to a compilation, nine out of 10 times they just hand over a little piece of poop they were able to scrape out of the toilet, never a quality track like they would put on one of their albums," Che notes by cell phone from his current tour with his new band, Bellini. "I [tried] to make it a really good song."
Asked if he thinks the comp will do anything to change the popular perception of drummers, DeRan says, "I would hope so. If anything, I think it's given the drummers involved more respect for themselves."
Che is having none of that. "I don't think that's a reputation that anyone has to suffer with. You can be the kind of [drummer] that you want to be," he says. "I think that anybody that put forward a good effort on [the album], it speaks for itself."
Of course, Che still has a favorite drummer joke to share. "Did you hear about the bass player who locked his keys in the van?" he asks. "It took him three hours to get the drummer out."