Under the Influences
Songwriter Tony Drummond Brings His Starkly Original Basement Songs To The Stage
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One year ago Tony Drummond was a working father of two who knocked out songs on his Rhodes piano all by himself and for himself. This past July 8, Drummond sat stage right at the Supreme Imperial behind his Rhodes piano with his new quartet, the Fading Son, flanked by drummer George France, guitarist Chris Witman, and bassist Neal Shaffer. They backed Drummond without being behind him—spread out both musically and spatially—giving him room and confidence enough to bring his worried, painstakingly personal songs out of his Hampden basement and into the club. And now they’re closing that gap to become a full-fledged band.
“I hadn’t played in a band since 1989,” Drummond says after a recent practice. “I didn’t know any of these guys before last year.”
Drummond met France through mutual friends who encouraged the 34-year-old Drummond to play his songs out live. In November, he was approached after one of these performances by Shaffer about playing music together.
France and Shaffer had met Witman, formerly of Philadelphia’s the Trauma Queens, via an internet classified ad seeking other musicians that Witman had posted when he moved to Baltimore the summer of 2004.
“We intended to do something with just us and Chris,” Shaffer says. “But when I heard what Tony was doing it just blew my mind and we decided to all work with Tony.”
Drummond’s music fuses his troubled Rhodes melodies with tense guitar lines; some songs feel like a drunken, solo waltz, danced way too late to end in anything but stumbling, while others lighten up enough to reveal the glimmers of hope that make Drummond’s music so engaging.
And Drummond’s lyrical approach differs from much recent down-tempo indie songwriting. He favors the genuine and honest rather than stylized, detached abstraction. ”Raise You My Heart” relates to his family life and how children can change a man for the better, while “Men in the Dark” describes, on some small level, how world politics affect his daily life. The songs are sincere and mature without being saccharine or alienating. Drummond walks a careful path between emotional smarminess and hiding behind a veil of snobbish irony.
"I just feel like so many bands forget that melodies make music memorable,” Drummond says. “Not just hooks. We seem to have forgotten that when children are overwhelmed we don’t yell or preach to them, we sing them a lullaby, and it’s truly cathartic. It’s almost the foundation of my philosophy—I write a song in two minutes all the time, and then spend five years on the melody. It’s so goddamn important.”
Drummond’s music isn’t just melody, though. While many of the songs, particularly those on which the focus is his Rhodes piano, are sad or even dour, there are buried harmonies that unlock a subtle positivism, and not just lyrically. “Blood” is a harrowing tale of someone else’s troubles until the chorus, when Drummond’s empathetic refrain of “Hold on, I have been where you are,” gives the faintest spark of optimism in troubled times.
“I think the thing that separates Tony’s songwriting from so much that’s out there today is that it’s absolutely not pretentious,” Witman says. “There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about what he’s saying, and it lacks the irony of art-school hipsters who use abstraction to make their songs interesting. They cover up shitty songs with in-jokes. I think for someone who is totally embedded in the indie-rock aesthetic these songs are really novel. You get it because he’s honest.”
A full band changes Drummond’s already fleshed-out songs to varying degrees. Drummond’s spare, haunting piano playing acts as a canvas for vocals that range in sound from whispers to howls like a sugarcoated cement mixer. With the addition of Shaffer’s bottom end and Witman’s versatile guitar embellishments, songs that worked as bare, sparse saloon ballads have become dense and far more driven, without detracting from the core melodies. France’s work with the Fading Son proves his versatility. The percussion is strong and full of flourishes that don’t overwhelm the balance created by the rest of the band.
“It’s amazing to me that we can coexist with the differences in our musical backgrounds, as it is that we are still getting to know each other,” Drummond says.
Each member of the band comes from a distinctly different personal and musical background, and has other commitments. France splits his time with two other bands, Convocation Of . . . and the Hush. Witman does double duty in the very dubby experimental rock quintet Heavens to Metroid. Shaffer writes comic books for Oni Press and sociopolitical commentary for a number of web publications. Drummond restores and repairs pipe organs and has two children.
“We knew when we first contacted Tony that this was going to be more or less a part-time thing,” Shaffer says. “We can’t practice three times a week, but we’ve made it as regular as we can to fit around our schedules. It’s not a chore to get together and play.”
“One of the things that has shocked me the most has been the fact that they all just pick it up and play their own thing,” Drummond says. “And it works. It seems like a freak accident that’s paying off all of a sudden.”
The Fading Son is working to become comfortable as more than just Drummond’s accompaniment. Each band member expresses an interest in working more as a team on songwriting.
"This isn’t the Tony Drummond Experience,” Drummond quickly points out. “I really do want to write as a band someday. I’ve just got 10 years worth of songs to get through. It’s really exciting as a man who’s written alone for so long to ‘build’ songs from someone else’s viewpoint and cultivate someone else’s thoughts for once.”