Drums are different. While they can be many things, their role tends to be pigeon-holed into that of carrying the rhythm. Many bands do work hard to make the drums something more than just a 4/4 drum machine. Some of these attempts fail to really stand-out beyond some yawn inducing drum solos, while others create unique and fresh textures with the percussive instrument.
As a novice drummer myself I seek these re-inventors as a way of forcing myself to change the way I play my instrument and to change what I see as a drum kit. The five drummers below have really altered the way I see the drums as an instrument, and also encouraged fresh new ways of interacting with them. There are many more than have motivated me, but these five are ones that have made me go "Oh wow, I never thought of that!" and had me rushing to my stool.
#5 Paul Thomson
You might be thinking "Who?", and after a quick Wikipedia search you may be saying "Him?", but I am not joking when I mention the stool warmer (that doesn't sound right does it?) for Franz Ferdinand. Drummers in pop bands have a terribly boring job of finding endless ways of making a 4/4 beat interesting. Many of these drummers, it seems, seem to put up their hands, collect their checks and put out the most uninteresting drum grooves imaginable. It is a shame when you hear such uninspired patterns over and over and over.
Credit where credit is due then as Paul seemingly works hard to avoid the pitfalls of the classic pop-rock drummer. His patterns are intricate and sophisticated despite being trapped inside simple songs. It seems that he puts in a great effort to not bore himself while on stage by challenging himself to keep time, but provide some ear candy for drum lovers. Frankly, I was surprised when I finally took notice, realizing that he does avoid the common pitfalls of his peers.
Mind you, Paul is not reinventing the wheel here or playing on a drum kit made of jam, but what he does do is not insult the listener with 40 minutes of *boom boom chick* on repeat. When I sit behind the stool and play to some pop-tunes I like to think of how else I can carry the rhythm, what little flares and tricks can I throw to not only save myself from boredom, but put the spotlight on the instrument that is stuck in back of the band.
One drummer is the standard in most bands. A few daring ones throw in a second to create some sharp layered rhythms. An even smaller number use three to really drive the point home. How about 77? 88? or even 111? Boredoms does not use drums has a supporting role, but rather in recent years has been exclusively drums and drummers alone. Boredoms shoves the instrument in your face by having more of them than you can count and even parading them around the stage.
Obviously this is not one drummer, but a collective of like mind thumping monsters creating never ending contextual layers for EYE to make noises against. To the uninitiated it all borderlines somewhere between awful sounding and bizarre. Even to the well aware it is a cacophony of sound, but a glorious one at that. When given the spotlight as it is here we get to hear just how wonderful drums truly are. As each player is inspired by the next a wonderful tribal sound begins to bloom, and it is not created to support a ripping guitar solo. Instead all other instruments solely exist in creating tonal layers for the rhythmists to play off of.
After a few rounds of Super Roots 9 you might begin to wonder how you can introduce the power of Boredoms into your own performances, and sadly it is a riddle without a true answer. What you get from Boredoms is a drive to do something outside of your four person cover band. You begin to wonder about sneaking out at night with your kit, to a secret place in the basement of an office building, where drummers gather to play interlocking patterns for hours on end. You hear whispers of such a place, following the clues and hoping one day to find this secret cabal of performers who do not let themselves be slaves to their stringed overlords.
#3 Bill Bruford
Guys, I am really sorry for not shutting up about King Crimson even after the fact, I really am, but damn Bill Bruford is freaking awesome! Not only is he a treat to listen to based on nothing more than his chops, but he is genuinely one of the most well spoken drummers out there. Now retired from public performing and pursuing a Ph.D in more drum related things. He seeks to understand what it is about the drums that are just so alluring.
Bruford was a player that always had to ask about purpose and role. What was the role of the drummer in this line-up? What was he doing? To many non-drummers I am sure this would result in nothing more than eye-rolls and a stern reassurance that he was there to keep time, but for Bruford these questions were integral to developing his relationship with a band. He simply wanted to be the best fit for whatever adventure he was about to embark on, and when he was not he let everyone know. Finding kind words about Yes's Union tour from him are hard to come by.
This sense of purpose also fit into his drum kits. A quick visit to his website will reveal that over his 30 some odd years of big stage performing he rarely staid on the same kit for more than a couple of years. Like a musical chameleon his kit was constantly changing shape and form, always with the music in mind. To him, the drums were an active role of the band, and his drum kit would reflect that. When in the 80's iteration of King Crimson he knew that the traditional trap kit was not going to fit, he threw nearly all of it out in favor of Simmon's electric pads, and those funny tube things. On Yes's Union tour he went with a full electronic kit so as not to trip over his co-drummer's sound. His final kit was set all flat, very undramatic, and designed for comfort and ease of movement.
While a disposable income surely helps with all of this, it is important for drummers to think of what kind of sound their band is producing and adapt. The traditional trap kit is great in how versatile it is, but there is much to be said about making your kit specifically for trying to capture a specific sound. This in turn will really help propel the ethos of the sound the band is going for. If your aim is to just cover top 40 hits at your local bar, then there is likely no need to make these changes, but if your proto-post-wave band is trying to break out of the hipsterest Burroughs of New York, then it may be wise to start swapping parts.
#2 Deantoni Parks
Part man part robot, Deantoni Parks is easily of the most unique drummers out there. His disdain for the norm is reflected heavily in his performing. His style is a contradiction on itself, minimalistic in one sense, but over the top in others. What this means is that he does not hit his kit that often, but when he does it is something special. His penchant for 80's pop and dance hits is obvious in his own performances, creating tight grooves to bob your head to, just like those early drum machines. Like a drum machine that has had a few rum and cokes spilled on it, though, it tends to glitch out, occasionally throwing a pattern at you that makes you take an audio double take, wondering what the hell just happened
This is the Deantoni Parks magic. It is his tendency to throw wild wrenches into his ultra tight grooves that stand out. Out of nowhere his conventional beats explode into an out of control spiral all before coming back together again, and to top it off he makes all seem so easy. Trying to replicate any of these acts usually results in a lot of embarrassment and a sprained wrist. Do not try this at home.
Parks is a polarizing musician, adored and loathed at the same time. Some applaud his tightly wound glitchy drum machine approach while others bemoan it, finding him boring and unexciting to watch. Deantoni is definitely not the most visually impressive drummer, as he rarely performs with any grand flair or gestures. Aside from some comically contorted faces he is not a visually stimulating performer. To the focused ear, however, his performances are out of this world and hard to even process.
His ability to elicit near perfect control of him and his environment is a drumming Nirvana only the 1% achieve. This is where his controlled presentation comes into play, each drum hit is deliberate, not just in placement on the musical spectrum, but its volume, tone, and about a dozen other characteristics that I could list. A few listens to him encourages you to explore your own patterns, and charts. You pull out your eraser and cut half your notes, wondering how you can make each one stand out on its own and have its own unique flair. Deantoni plays with so few notes because anymore and our brains would implode upon themselves.
#1 Christian Vander
The French are often the butt of many jokes, but one thing they do really well is make absolutely bonkers music. You might recall Christian Vander is the composer and drummer for mutant space opera outfit Magma. As the writer of all the music you would figure he would create music that puts him in the spotlight of his self-imposed auditory circus. This is what you would figure, but you would be wrong. Instead nearly everything else is in the forefront, chanting choruses, haunting Rhodes' keyboards, and thundering bass lines, creating something that resembles both haunting beauty and two people punching each other in the face and having a good laugh about it.
So you might think then that Christian should be applauded for his modesty, his knowledge of when it is right to sit back and let others take the spotlight. You might even commend his mastery of his own ego. Surely this must be the case for the man who invents his own language, writes all the music, and still does not require all lights shine on him. His albums even reflect his penance for modesty as the mix often does not do him any favors, burying him under the ten kidnapped people forced to chant over and over about Kobaia. Yes you could argue that it is him that is screeching like a goose that has inhaled some PCP on those early records, but credit where credit is due he did begin to stop that on later albums when he finally came to realize that there was no way in the world he was going to hit those high notes.
This whole theory adds up....right until you put him on the stage and his zen like presence melts into what equates to musical turrets. In keeping time he seems to go out of his way to play everything else but. Random cymbal crashes radiate the stage along all sorts of musical tom-foolery. Christian strives for downright insanity while performing in front of an audience. Were you looking for the snare hit as the cue to come in? Well here are six hits....and none of them are right, I changed the cue to the one of 5 hi-hat hits. All this is physically represented by a disturbingly hairy man who looks like he is in the middle of the worlds longest stroke.
It all comes across as one big joke until you pick up your sticks and try it for yourself. It is here where it all begins to make sense. The extra cymbal strikes are about creating tension and drama in his insane space drama about...fuck it I am not getting into that right now. Christian's drumming is about the pageantry and presence of the music and what it stands for in this moment in time. Each seemingly random roll of the floor tom is an emotional outburst that works at that moment during that performance, and really only that one alone. Despite how complex his drum patterns are initially in the studio, they are nothing compared to his live outbursts of fury and rage.
It seems to go to a primal area of his that I can not tap, not his anyway. I practice this nearly every time I rehearse. Pick three or four songs to play along with, close your eyes and forget what seems conventional, go with your gut, what does it does say? Does it say to proceed hitting the hi-hat three times before hitting the snare or does it say throw your floor tom across the room and punch your ride cymbal? It is important for drummers to carry the rhythm, but it is also important to listen to instinct, and bring a distinct emotion every time we take the stage.