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Luscious Jackson's Kate Schellenbach

Okay, let’s say you’re playing drums in a Blondie cover band, and Blondie shows up to watch! Then, even better, Blondie invites you to play with them! And before you know it, your favorite professional basketball players are coming to watch you shoot hoops in a pickup game! Is there no end to the rapture?

But then things change. Inexplicably, you find yourself onstage in front of thousands of people. Frisbees are whipping around you, guitarists are doing pushups, and you’re waving your arms like a semaphore, and then you unwittingly insult the show’s promoter, just for good measure.

What in tarnation is going on here??!

Well, there are two perfectly good explanations. Either you’re dreaming, or you’re Kate Schellenbach.

Kate Schellenbach, 33, is the groovemeister for Luscious Jackson, and that last zany incident – along with all the others, by the way – happened just over the past year. It was summer ’98, Luscious Jackson’s last Lilith Fair show, and they wanted to do something different. The band had been ending their sets with “Citysong,” a tune that called for percussionist Tia Sprocket to take over the drum kit while Schellenbach went up front to dance and otherwise taunt the crowd. But this time the band decided to invite all the tour drummers to help play the finale.

“First of all, for that last set we had about 20 people onstage,” Schellenbach remembers, “playing frisbee, doing pushups – it was insane. And for that last song, we had a line of people spilling off the stage – people we had never seen before, standing there with drumsticks.” Each drummer was asked to play four bars, locked into a tempo along with a sample. Now, within all this madness, Schellenbach was out in front of the kit, conducting and generally looking like a traffic cop on caffeine. As she tells the story, “Sarah McLachlan was bouncing around behind the riser, mouthing words to me that I couldn’t hear. I thought maybe she was saying, ’I-want-to-play-drums-too,’ but I figured, ’No, she doesn’t play.’ Then at some point I thought the audience was going ho, hum, so I signaled Tia to finish the song. But at the end Sarah comes up to me, and she’s like [pouting], ’I wanted to play drums – I can play drums, too.’ And I thought, ’Oh, no, I can’t believe I just forbid Sarah McLachlan from playing drums on her own tour!’” In truth, it’s doubtful that the Lilith Fair audience was ever bored with Luscious Jackson, an all-girl band from New York whose music is a blend of hip-hop rhythms and funky overlays, with punk roots. Or is it funk rhythms and punk overlays, with hip-hop roots? No one can say for sure, but what the band puts out is a rich urban mesh of taut grooves, samples, loops, layers, textures, more layers and hot gritty funky jams. Now, a couple years after their last CD Fever In Fever Out went gold (and a single, “Naked Eye,” throbbed on every cool radio station in America), the band is about to release their next album and start on yet another tour. Do they ever get tired?

The band went into the studio last May (yes, we mean 1998 – they take their sweet time) without departed keyboardist Vivian Trimble, who had grown weary of the touring life. (Keyboard duties were taken over by bandmates Jill Cunniff and Gabrielle Glaser, who write and sing all the songs and play bass and guitar.) As always, Luscious Jackson co-produced all the tunes, but the band’s search for a producer yielded some interesting results. Because no one on their short wish list was able to commit to the whole record, the band decided to work piecemeal with whoever on the list was available: Tony Mangurian, who co-produced the last three records; Tony Visconti, of Bowie fame; LJ’s tour DJ Alex Young; and Mickey P, who has worked with the Eels and with Beck.

While Fever In, if not a dark record, at least lingered at the edge of dusk, the new one, Electric Honey, is more celebratory, although still not without introspection and lyrics about frustrated love. “This CD is pretty pop-oriented,” says Schellenbach. “It’s danceable pop, catchy and fun. But,” she hastens to add, “it’s not total bubblegum – you know, it’s got some meat.” They’re still New Yorkers, after all.

Having relied more exclusively on sampling in their early years, the band has come to appreciate the depth of sound you can get by mixing live music with samples. While some tunes on the new CD were done entirely live, others were combinations of programming, sampling and looped samples of live playing. “We recorded a lot of drum loops, and sometimes Tony would program drums on top of that,” Schellenbach explains. “He’s gotten into the whole drum ’n’ bass sound, but likes live drums. He’s figured out how to re-create drum ’n’ bass live by gating the overhead mike, so the ride cymbal, hi-hat, and snare come in and out.”

“Fantastic Fabulous,” also on the new album, presented another opportunity for experimentation. “It has this glam vibe to it,” says Schellenbach, “so we thought we should have Visconti produce the song, because he was one of the people who invented that glam/glitter drum sound with bands like T Rex.” The drums were recorded live, and then Schellenbach became privy to “the secret behind the glam drum sound,” which involves tuning the drums up nice and open, then tossing towels over ’em. “And you add on a slapback effect, so you have this dead but double sound – it’s really weird, but it gives you that Gary Glitter ’Rock & Roll’ effect,” she says.

Less is More

Like a couple of her greatest idols, John Bonham and Greg Errico (who played with Sly and the Family Stone), Schellenbach keeps her drum set small. She plays a Ludwig Super Classic silver sparkle kit, with just one mounted tom and a floor tom, and only a couple crashes. “It’s pretty low-maintenance,” she says, “and my favorite drummers have been able to get incredible sounds out of this setup. A lot of funk drummers, or even the drummers who used a billion toms in the ’80s – like Joey Kramer from Aerosmith – have gone back to small kits.”

Schellenbach also kept the miking fairly minimal for the new CD, using just a kick mike, an overhead and a room mike. As for the dreaded click, the Achilles heel of many a drummer, Schellenbach feels perfectly comfortable playing with one. “I don’t mind it,” she admits. “Some songs have a natural push and pull, and you want to be able to speed up or slow down. But for recording, especially in layers, it definitely helps.” In the absence of electronic aids, Schellenbach says that she usually locks in with the keyboardist rather than the bass player, because the keyboardist triggers samples that she plays to.

Lest any bassist out there be offended by the slight, Schellenbach adds that she enjoys a certain spiritual oneness with her bass player that helps develop the feel of each tune. “We’ve seen a lot of the same bands, and we speak the same language and use the same references,” she says. “When we’re learning a new song, we might tell each other, ’This has kind of an ESG feel,’ or ’a Slits thing,’ or ’the Siouxsie and the Banshees drums,’ or something like that.”

A Slits thing??? Well, for the geeks among us, the Slits were a late-’70s female punk group from England, and ESG was, according to Schellenbach, “this legendary New York cult funk band that was very influential on us – three sisters from the Bronx who started playing downtown at this avant-garde club when their mother bought them all instruments. They did really simple bass-and-drums minimalist funk in the early ’80s.” These were the kinds of bands that rocked the teenage Schellenbach’s world when she was hanging out on the streets as the ’70s were coming to a close and traditional punk was on the wane. Not surprisingly, Schellenbach loathed school and the standard adolescent social scene, preferring a subterranean reality instead. She felt her first rhythmic yearnings at the age of 13, and after she spent a brief period banging on the proverbial cardboard boxes, a family friend asked to store some drums at the Schellenbach house. “Sure, as long as Kate can play them,” answered her mother, who, apparently, had completely lost her mind.

Not long after that – maybe about as long as the shelf life of a cardboard box under siege – Schellenbach became the first drummer for the Beastie Boys. She’d been asked to play percussion in a band called the Young Aborigines, which included, among others, Mike Diamond of the Beasties. They were doing post-punk, Public Image-esque music, just horsing around. “We would all switch instruments,” Schellenbach recalls. “I started to play drums, and we basically made fun of hard-core punk rock. That’s how the Beastie Boys were born.” After about three years, though, when the Boys switched genres and started doing exclusively rap, Schellenbach was out.

A few years later, she found herself re-connecting with old friends Cunniff and Glaser, whom she’d known since the early days when they hung out in punk clubs together. Around 1991, Cunniff and Glaser put together a short demo and gave a copy to Schellenbach, who tuned into its cutting-edge combination of rap, hip-hop and samples. “They were sampling punk-rock stuff, so I thought it was really cool,” she says. In the meantime, Cunniff had asked if Schellenbach was interested in forming an ESG cover band. That strange ambition somehow morphed into Luscious Jackson.

Along the way, Schellenbach had been entirely self-taught – which can lead to some interesting problems. One little annoyance is that a self-taught drummer can spend years doing something that produces perfectly normal sounds but is in fact ergonomically incorrect. Schellenbach discovered this after taking up lessons about ten years ago with Paula Spiro, a teacher she discovered in the Village Voice. At the time, Spiro suggested that Schellenbach consider altering her grip, because she was playing thumbs-up and not using her wrists to their best advantage. “I was using my arms unnecessarily, which wastes energy and lessens control – especially at lower volumes. I told Paula that if I was still taking lessons in ten years, I’d think about it,” remembers Schellenbach with a snort.

Basketball Jones

Well, ten years went by, and Schellenbach just happened to jam her left ring finger doing what she loves doing best – er, second-best: playing basketball, which she does twice a week, much to the anxiety of her friends. “It was a pretty bad jam – it doesn’t bend as far as the rest of my fingers, and it also doesn’t straighten, so it’s stuck in between,” says Schellenbach. So Spiro pounced on the opportunity to nag. “Now that you’re hurt,” she said, “let’s work on your grip, because your ring finger is just for support anyway. You should focus more on playing palm-down now, and using more of your wrist.”

“It’s so great that my teacher is in touch with the kinetics and physicality of drumming,” says Schellenbach, “and she’s interested in preventing injuries and pain.” Always a good goal. One of Spiro’s first suggestions was to lower the ride cymbal to ease some of the drummer’s shoulder problems. “She asked me why I had my ride up so high, and I didn’t know,” says Schellenbach. “You copy other drummers, or you look at ads, where the drums are never set up in a comfortable way. They’re just set up to show off the equipment.”

Heretical as it may sound, Schellenbach has recently considered adding more pieces to her setup – not because she wants to sit behind a monster kit, but more to compensate for a glitch in her technique. “Because I’m self-taught, one of the things I started doing early on was leading my rolls and fills with my left hand – and I’m right-handed,” she says. “Maybe it’s from watching people on stage or on TV, and not reversing the mirror image in my mind? Who knows. But I end my fills on my right, and I have to learn ways to compensate for that one beat I might miss when getting back to my ride or hi-hat. Often I’ll end a fill by starting a hi-hat pattern with my left hand and later switching to my right. Or I’ll hit the tom while keeping the beat with the left hand, stuff like that.” Indeed, when Schellenbach plays sixteenth-notes on the hi-hat, she ends up hitting the snare with her left hand, freeing up her right hand to go around the set. “One book that’s been really helpful to my cause is a Joe Cusatis book called Rhythmic Patterns for the Modern Drummer. He starts all his fills with the left hand for some reason – thank God for me. You end up doing a paradiddle at the end of the fill, to get back to your right hand. So this is the book for me!” she laughs.

Schellenbach is thinking about adding another ride cymbal on the left side, for easy access after a fill. And it’s possible that, depending on how the band works out the new songs for live shows, she may have to bite the bullet and add electronics as well. “I’d prefer to just play acoustic drums,” she says, “but if I need to get electronic drums to trigger things, I’m not closed to moving in that direction.”

Playing live has always been a challenge for Schellenbach, because it’s impossible to replicate onstage the complex layering that occurs in the studio. “Sometimes we’ll figure out what beats are most prevalent in a song, and make up a new beat that combines the most important elements of the loops. But ’Naked Eye,’ for instance, had a beat that wouldn’t replicate well unless I had drum pads, which I haven’t been using. So we ended up having our DJ run one of the drum tracks on a sampler that I play along to. Sometimes, if you don’t have some of the sound elements going, you really lose the impact of the song.”

Back to Blondie

Okay, are you ready for the Blondie story yet? Well, it involves something called “Fraggle Rock,” a monthly event in New York that puts together an all-girl tribute band to play the songs of a particular artist. Schellenbach has drummed for Fraggle Rock on a few occasions, doing a B-52s tribute, a Blondie tribute, etc.

Well, on the night she was playing Blondie covers, Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein actually showed up to listen! Then Schellenbach gets this phone call from Debbie Harry, who says, “We’re playing a show at Tramps, but Clem Burke can’t make it. Can you play with us? I know you know the songs – I just saw you play ’em!” Schellenbach laughs when recounting the story. “It was so great because Blondie was my favorite band when I was like 13 years old. I was a member of the Blondie Fan Club, the whole thing.” Two days later Schellenbach was in the studio for one rehearsal, and two days after that she was playing with Blondie at Tramps. “Thank God I was so prepared,” she says, “because I’d already learned these Blondie songs for the Fraggle Rock tribute, and I’d played them ad nauseam.”

Another dream that came true for Schellenbach last summer was a collaboration of sorts with the New York Liberty, one of the teams in the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association). Both Glaser and Schellenbach are basketball freaks and follow the Liberty religiously. So they invited one of the players – Kym Hampton, who has an incredible voice – to come into the studio and sing backups on one of the new songs. “She showed up to the recording session in a Luscious Jackson T-shirt, which was extra thrilling,” Schellenbach says. Then Hampton and another player actually visited Schellenbach’s weekly basketball game. And to finish off the whimsy, Schellenbach, not normally a big shooter, scored more than her usual share of points.

Schellenbach also played last year at the Suffragette Sessions Tour, put together by Amy Ray and Emily Saliers from the Indigo Girls. The idea was that female musicians would get together and play each other’s songs, and Schellenbach would be the drummer for all the acts. “Amy really wanted me to be the drummer because she’d heard that I’d done Fraggle Rock,” she chuckles. “Fraggle Rock has gotten me a lot of gigs this summer! Anyway, you get a tape, you have one or two rehearsals, and then a week later you’re playing a show.” This seems to be her standard M.O.

Playing a range of different styles, though, was a new challenge. “I got to play a pretty hard-rocking Come song, percussion with Lisa Germano, a couple of Indigo tunes, ’Ziggy Stardust’ ... it was totally all over the place,” she remembers. The hardest part was playing the quieter stuff, because Schellenbach started as a punk drummer and has been a basher ever since. “This is the first time I’ve had to pull back and play [she deliberately elongates the next word] q-u-i-e-t-l-y. In some cases I was playing with my fingers on the kit. Even that was sometimes too loud. And definitely the quieter you play, the more obvious mistakes are,” she says self-effacingly.

Despite her ability to learn tunes at the drop of a stick, Schellenbach admits that she isn’t entirely well-rounded. “Even all the Suffragette styles stayed in the pop realm. I feel like everything I do outside of that is fake – fake country, fake jazz. But I’m still learning, and I’m tackling drumming issues that come up on tour.”

One of those issues has been a confidence problem that cropped up fairly recently. Why would this happen after playing the same songs 6,000 times? “Well,” she muses, “when you play the same material every night, you don’t have the time to play anything else, and your playing skills actually get lower. I was thinking, ’Why am I flubbing these songs, years later? How come I still have problems doing a fill longer than half a measure?’”

So Schellenbach once again called upon Paula Spiro to work with her on paradiddles and rudiments, and it’s paid off. “I’m not going to go out there and start doing a drum solo in the middle of a Luscious Jackson song, but I’m not afraid any more to dive into crazy fills.”

Luscious Jackson will be back on the road in a month or two, in support of the new CD. But for now the interview is over. Schellenbach has to dash off to meet Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, who are appearing on The Rosie O’Donnell Show along with Emmylou Harris. “Who knows, maybe there’s another collaboration coming.” She laughs. “I’ve gotta get going on my country chops.”

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