What led you to improvised music?
When I first started playing drums, I would learn songs note-for-note and try to nail all the beats and fills – I wanted to know all of the cool tricks. When it came to playing in bands though, I had to make up my own parts. I spent a few years throwing out whacky fills and flipping beats around and eventually I developed enough control over what I was doing that I could make parts up as I went along. Over time, I was fortunate enough to find other musicians who also liked to “make up” parts as they went along and through these experiences I started to develop an instinct for playing with other people, in an improvised setting.
At some point I saw the film Naked Lunch and this introduced me to the written works of William S. Burroughs. I was immediately drawn to his ‘stream-of-consciousness’ approach and started seeing parallels between this style of writing and the style of playing that I seemed to be developing. As it turns out, Ornette Coleman also contributed to the soundtrack of the film and I took my first few steps into the world of free jazz. I didn’t know anything about how to play jazz and so I decided to go and study it for a while. As influential and instrumental to my development as this experience was, I began to feel like there was something else that I was going for, creatively, and decided to pursue that instead. I took much inspiration from drummers like Zach Hill, Chris Corsano and Frank Rosaly and started working on extended techniques and incorporating some contact mics and effects into my setup. I was playing in bands and improvising quite a bit, but I felt like I needed an outlet specifically for my own explorations on the drums and that’s when I started my solo project.
What instrument or equipment do you use to improvise, and what is your relationship with this equipment?
I have two kits that I choose from, depending on the gig. One has a 14” rack tom, 16” floor tom and 20” bass drum and is better for heavier settings. The other is more of a jazz kit with 12” rack tom, 14” floor tom and 18” bass drum and is better for smaller, acoustic vibes. I then have my trusty old 14”x8” Tama Artwood snare drum – it has a wide tuning range, making it a good fit with both kits and it is the most expressive drum I’ve ever owned.
I like big, thin, dark cymbals – they don’t need to be hit very hard to produce a nice wide sound, but they also explode when you ‘dig in’ to them. I’ve had a bad habit of breaking cymbals lately, so have had a few changes, but I usually go for 15” hats, 22” ride and crash/china cymbals that are 18” or bigger.
I have other assorted objects and implements that make an appearance from time to time. I use a cello bow on cymbals and bells and sometimes on strings that I set up across my snare or floor tom. I keep a piece of dowel prepared with cello rosin which I can run my fingers down while resting it perpendicular on the floor tom head – this produces deep droning tones that resonate through the whole drum and almost have a bowed-string or even synth-like quality. I have an assortment of bells, cups and small cymbals that I use to mute and distort drum heads and create new metallic textures and playing surfaces. I also have a modified electric toothbrush and a mini vibrator which are useful for creating sharp, jittery sounds when let loose on any surface or long, droning sounds when pressed into a cymbal or drum head.
If the gig calls for it, I like to expand upon these sounds by attaching contact mics to the drum shells and clip-on contact mics to the cymbal stands, just under the cymbals. I then run all of these into a mixer, through a pre-amp, then into a volume pedal and straight through a couple of guitar effects pedals - usually a distortion, delay, looper and reverb, but sometimes I add my ‘Super-Ego’ pedal with a tremolo in the effects loop. I run all of this through a guitar amp and let the noise fly. The raw, unaffected sound from the contact mics is thinner and harsher than regular drum sounds, but I actually really like this. The result is somewhat of a carbon copy of the original sound and when you capture a loop it sounds more like a memory or a dream. If you affect this enough, you can also create sounds that don’t seem like they could have come from a drum kit and this can be a lot of fun to interact with during a performance.
What are your feelings on the relationship between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?
Sometimes, spontaneity is the best – things happen that no-one was expecting and it sends you down some crazy and unusual paths. Other times, it never quite gets out of the gate and this is where some planning would have helped…
In a small group setting, the amount of experience that you have playing together can be an important factor to consider. When you’re familiar with everyone’s playing, it’s much easier to latch onto ideas and anticipate the next move. This eliminates some of the second-guessing that can leave you all loitering in a creative cul-de-sac and usually makes it easier to deliver a tighter performance. In situations where you are playing together for the first time, a loose plan of at least a starting point and a central event is probably a good idea, but I feel like it is still important to remain open to spontaneity, just in case you manage to open a portal to another dimension. I’ve definitely had some great sets where the plan was abandoned early on.
In a larger group setting, the margin for error is much smaller and spontaneity can quickly lead to a performance that resembles a thick, brown soup. This is amazing to be a part of, sometimes – the lines between everybody are blurred and you all become a single, gurgling entity. The strength of the performance then becomes more about the density or the internal chaos of it all. If you’re aiming for something a little more nuanced than this though, a plan involving a starting point and a few other specific events can give everyone a sturdy enough scaffolding to swing from. When this starts opening up, it’s important to leave enough room for each other, or the dreaded soup awaits.
In a solo setting, I’ve never been too fussed on having an exact plan - I feel like the most important thing for me to do is to get acquainted with the space that I am in. There is no one else to play ‘off’ of and so I need to get to know the room. If I can spend some time while setting up, I’ll tune drums and set gain levels so that when I hit something, the right sound comes back at me. Then, I’ll try to get a feel for the space as an audience member – what kinds of things would translate well, acoustically/emotively? My general vibe from this, combined with my current mental and physical state, will help me to formulate some available options in terms of sounds and themes that I might be able to use. I then select one of these as a starting point and might arrange my effects chain and/or placement of certain implements to prepare for some of the others. I then try to relax my breathing, quiet my mind and I’m ready to go.
How do you evaluate or reflect upon improvisations you’ve played? How does the evaluation of a recording differ from the evaluation of a performance?
I usually go straight to packing my gear up after a set – I’ve always done this and I think it’s because it gives me an opportunity to linger in the headspace of the performance on my own for a bit. While I’m packing up, I might also reflect on the sections or ideas that are still resonating in my mind and make note of what worked and what needs more work. To be honest though, I find that I usually can’t remember it all in enough detail to thoroughly evaluate it. I much prefer to record a set and listen back to it a few days later. That way I can hear it as a whole piece and with a more objective ear.
Do you think there is room for discursive (as opposed to non-discursive) thought in improvisation? Can discursive thoughts whilst playing be productive rather than distracting, and if so, do you have an idea as to when this might be the case?
Anything which has the potential to skew your focus can be risky in an improvised setting, but I think that discursive thoughts are part of the catharsis of improvised music. Just like in a meditative or psychedelic state, the unprovoked thoughts that emerge can become a direct line to something that you need to reckon with in some way. If it is something that you can use to drive your performance or propel a new idea, then it’s worth letting that in, you just have to keep any self-indulgence in check. Just because you’ve suddenly been swamped with an existential dread doesn’t mean that everyone in the place wants to cop a 15-minute screamed-expletive/harsh-noise-wall finale.
Can you name three albums/pieces/experiences that inspired you to start improvising, and three that are currently inspiring you?
Three albums that inspired me to get started:
Ornette Coleman – “Free Jazz” (double-quartet, free jazz masterpiece - possibly what started it all for me)
Chris Corsano – “Cut” (amazing acoustic solo drumming)
Frank Rosaly – “Centering and Displacement” (an interesting blend of solo drumming with electronics)
Three albums that have inspired me recently:
Tristan Perich – “Noise Patterns” (not really improvised, but amazing 1-bit, electronic sound art)
Sumac – “What One Becomes” (long-form post-metal/noise with some great improvised passages)
Flaherty/Corsano Duo – “The Hated Music” (furious free jazz for sax and drums)
What do you feel should happen next to see further growth in exploratory music practice in Western Australia?
I think a good thing would be to integrate experimental/improvised music into the broader scene of original music. There is definitely a trend towards more experimental sounds in Perth and I think there is more common ground there than people might realise. Collaborations between the two could make for some really interesting results, either as one-off performances or as a means of establishing new groups/bands.