Jon Karel: More Than A Numbers Game
‘Tired of trying to decipher mathcore’s elaborate, odd-time-signature prog puzzles? Plagued with a sneaking suspicion it’s all just a big showy brain tease meant to impress other musicians? Think its purveyors wouldn’t know a groove from a physics equation? Well, rest assured, mathcore monster Jon Karel, drummer for the curiously named North Jersey outfit The Number Twelve Looks Like You, feels your pain.
Actually, he doesn’t. But he does understand your infantile obsession with 4/4 enough to trick you into thinking the band’s new album, Worse Than Alone, is actually way more accessible than it is. Why would he do this? Maybe because he’s sick of fielding calls from angry parents complaining that his drumming caused their kid’s head to explode all over the nice new carpet. Or maybe he just likes toying with people. More likely though, is that he does it because he can.
“I think the last record, Mongrel, was much easier for other musicians to appreciate,” Karel admits. “So a portion of the effort in the writing process was like, can we be sneakier about this? Can we put a more familiar pulse into an odd-time groove? And can we do it in a way that you won’t need to know what’s happening to appreciate that you like what’s happening?”
For an answer to that riddle, Karel took a cue from one of his biggest heroes, Meshuggah’s master basher, Tomas Haake. “I’m convinced that Tomas Haake is influenced by raga rhythms,” Karel says, referring to the elaborate melodic building blocks that form the basis of Indian classical music. “Because [Meshuggah’s] rhythmic phrases are so long, like 24-bar phrases before it loops around once. But he always puts this straight-ahead 4/4 backbeat pulse to his groove playing, no matter how far out of that world it is. It’s like, he does such a good job of being sneaky about it and just appeasing his own creativity, but not losing the listener.”
Okay, so we get that chops-fiends like Karel and Haake have special, amped-up creative impulses that can’t be satisfied with your run-of-the-mill headbanger beats. But come on, dude. What about the groove, brah? “I think I’ve successfully opened my brain and my body and my heart up to recognizing and accepting these other subdivisions, these other denominations and time signatures,” Karel insists (in such a way that we actually believe him), “and to recognize them as comfortable, familiar, just feel-good melodies and licks and grooves.” Lucky for him, he found a band that feels the same way. “The funny joke in the band is that we’ll be playing a riff and Alex [Pareja, guitarist] will be like, ‘God, this timing is so weird. It just feels so, like, up and down. It’s really uncomfortable. What time signature are you playing?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m playing straight 4/4.’”
But the real joke is on anybody who questions Karel’s sincerity, especially after they’ve heard him launch into one of his long, remarkably coherent discourses on the historical distinctions between Western and non-Western beat structures being rooted in disparate spiritual and cultural signifiers — from Turkish pop in 9/8 to Indian classical in 19/16 to our 4/4, what feels “natural” is different for everybody. It quickly becomes clear that Karel’s intellectual approach to drumming rivals even the Vulcan sobriety of Steve Smith, whose History Of The U.S. Beat DVD Karel references frequently.
But Karel has taken great pains to also keep his heart in the equation. And that’s a consideration he’d like to see a lot more of in the genre of music he plays. “Using fast chops and using advanced coordination patterns and grooves or sophisticated polyrhythmic or poly-metric structures can definitely deliver the appearance or the vibe of chaos and extremity,” Karel says. “But you know, I kind of just don’t buy it with a lot of these guys. It doesn’t feel sincere. It doesn’t really feel like they are deciding in their hearts that’s what they want to hear and then taking the steps to get there.
“The sheer physical nature of the genre and the intensity and the abnormal nature of the writing of the grooves and stuff puts a lot of pressure on you to root yourself in a much more physical and conceptual style of playing. But all music is so painfully, obviously related to by people and loved by people when they don’t have to think about why it’s good — they just know that it is because they feel it in their heart.”
Band The Number Twelve Looks Like You
Birthplace Nyack, New York
Influences Dad, Billy Cobham, Vinnie Paul, Zakir Hussein, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Danny Carey, Mick Harris, Pete Sandoval, Dave Witte, Flo Mounier, Steve Smith, Jojo Mayer, Thomas Haake
Current Release Worse Than Alone
Web Site myspace.com/tntllu
Sticks Vic Firth