John Stanier: High On The ‘Hawk
Mechanics Of Boom-Bap
For Oddfellows it seems that Stanier went out of his way to avoid clichés or do anything he has done before in Tomahawk. But he won’t take all the credit for that because it’s not something he plans – it’s just the way things work out. Take the broken triplet on “Rise Up Dirty Waters,” a song David Lynch will probably be trying to license for one of his films in the near future. “That was the hardest track to do,” he explains. “Simply put that was the ’jazz’ song. [laughs] I was an orchestral percussion major in college but my drum set education is limited. I’m more drum corps and orchestral percussion and playing to Sabbath and Rush in my garage. I can’t even play a basic jazz 101 ding-dinga-ding beat. I can’t do it. I can’t keep any time on my left foot or play my bass drum like it’s a tom. That’s just a foreign concept to me. I’ve never learned how to do it – it doesn’t interest me. So that song was just like a can of worms, like ’A jazz swing song? Ugggh.’”
Not that Stanier didn’t want to challenge himself, but a big-band beat is not how he would have gone about it if he had had the choice, which he didn’t. “It’s sort of what Duane wanted,” he says. “It kind of makes sense with the bass line and everything. That’s the other thing: What else am I going to play? It’s obvious. It’s supposed to sound like a really bad jazz band at a Cincinnati Holiday Inn in 1962 or something. In my opinion the sound is almost like [a bunch of] hacks. Then the chorus is almost a gospel sort of vibe we were going for. It’s supposed to be really dirty, gnarly, and drunk sounding.”
Stanier’s description could be a catch-all for what you end up with in the treasure-hunt writing process of Tomahawk: vague directives from the bandleader via email, like a conceptual-art prank or being in a band by proxy. Either way, it’s about as unrock-and-roll a way of doing things as possible. Take the gradually increasing tempo of “The Quiet Few,” for example. “That was already definitely written in there on the original demo,” he adds. “Somehow Duane figured out how to program his drum machine to get faster and faster,” Stanier laughs. “Basically instructions for that were, ’Get faster. Get crazier.’
On “Waratorium” Stanier does a cool open-and-closing splash-beat on the hats where’d you’d least expect it in the phrase, which gives it a wobbly feel even though signature-wise it’s straight as an arrow. “I remember playing that and being like, ’Wow, that sounds really weird, but it’s so easy to play.’ And it was the first thing that I played. It’s almost like if someone were to say, ’Make the open hi-hat part on 3 instead of 2,’ I don’t know if I would be able to do it. It’s one of those really weird, super complicated – well, kind of complicated – beats that I can play really well for some bizarre reason and I don’t know why. If I had to change it up I don’t know if I could, but I don’t care. That’s why I would be a horrible session drummer.”
Funny Stanier should mention session work. Though he has always been the drummer in the band as opposed to a drummer for hire, he is still down to play in friends’ projects whenever needed, like the handful of albums he did with Melissa Auf Der Mahr (Hole, Smashing Pumpkins). But there’s a wide gulf between the indie world and big-budget bands, even if the latter are a dying breed. “I’ve never had a producer call me up,” he says. “I almost feel like there are two kinds of drummers: There are drummers that are great because they can adapt to any situation whatsoever, I mean they’re chameleons. You know, the master session drummers like Steve Gadd and people like that who can adapt to anything. Bossa nova? No problem. Change this? No problem, boom-boom-boom. And then there are drummers that are totally stuck in their own style, but that style is so influential and so incredible that they don’t have to do anything else. You hear them on someone else’s record and you know which drummer it is. So it’s two totally different worlds.”
The Accidental Beatsmith
Asked about influences, Stanier is perplexed. A self-described Rush fanatic, it’s hard to hear any obvious traces of Neil Peart in any of the drummer’s bands. He ticks off major “likes” including Holger Czukay of Can, ZZ Top’s Frank Beard, Nicko McBrain, Chuck Biscuits, the drums on Barry White and Ohio Players hits, and so on, but he’s not at all sure they shaped his playing in a meaningful way.
After wearing him down, he admits that Bill Bruford is a big influence on his playing. The thing that bugs him about the “influences” question, though, is that the drummers he digs are a very different animal from ones who have influenced his playing. He digs Joey Kramer but not, as we assumed, because of that drum-tastic intro on “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith’s most famous song.
“That’s hip-hop 101,” Stanier says of a tune that was in fact sampled by ’80s rap legends Run-DMC. “It’s so strange that in 2012, 2013 it’s almost impossible to pinpoint an influence because it’s like you’re being influenced by the 20th generation of an [already existing] influence. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m trying to think of something I’m influenced by which doesn’t have its origin in something else, but who cares? It’s all about what you get out of it.