Rodney Holmes: The Amazing Drumming Chameleon
With singles around the kit that would make Billy Cobham blush and more soul than an old KISS boot, Rodney Holmes is an in-demand drummer that plays with an impressive combination of fire and feel. But his talent isn’t all about chops. It’s also about scope. Case in point: When we caught up with Holmes, he was back flying from a jazzy European tour with saxophonist Randy Brecker to hook up with his current group, the jam-based Steve Kimock Band. He may as well have been flying from the North to South Poles.
“It’s been crazy,” he deadpans, even though the stylistic chasm that stands between those two acts makes perfect sense in Holmes’ hands. His adaptability is quietly becoming the stuff of legend, but he possesses yet another attribute that can’t be measured in bpms. It’s called humility. “[I practice] as much as I can,” says Holmes. “Whenever I have a stretch of time, I go in the basement and work on new things — things that I’m hearing in my mind. Especially these days. I feel like I’m changing, I feel like I’m evolving. I feel like a beginner, I feel like I’m just starting. It’s incredible.”
Here’s Where He Started
Handling such shifting dynamics with ease comes from a deep education and commitment to his craft. Holmes blossomed early — growing up for the most part in New York City, his playing garnered him a full scholarship to Long Island University. But it was an opportunity that just didn’t feel right at the time.
“I’ve always been relatively shy,” he says, “dealing with different cliques, and social hierarchies in school. I was always uncomfortable with that, and the last thing I wanted at that moment was to go back to school. I needed to just get out in the real world and not deal with that for a while, and kind of figure out how I fit into everything.”
Day job in tow, it didn’t take Holmes long to start making himself known in the very competitive New York scene. He saved enough to buy a “professional” drum kit and took as many gigs as possible. But there was one in particular that simultaneously boosted his career and confidence.
“There used to be a place, the Jazz Cultural Theater in New York City, and Barry Harris, the great piano player, used to run it,” he remembers. “It was basically a jam session for professional musicians and musicians that just played for a hobby. Sometimes Art Blakey would come in! I mean, anybody could show up, it was just well known at the time. It was this humble little place and the people were very friendly. You’d pay three dollars if you were a musician and sign your name and go up and play. And if you weren’t a musician you’d pay five dollars and have a drink and watch.”
Such a scene, brimming with heavy hitters, might intimidate some players, but even at a tender age of 19 years, Holmes was made to feel at home, and even began to make an impression. Within six months he had made enough contacts to quit his day job; his first big break was a stint with legendary keyboardist Clyde Criner. “It was a very exciting period,” Holmes remembers. “I played on two of Clyde’s records. It was my first real professional recording experience.”
None other than Omar Hakim shared the drumming duties with Holmes on that recording. While it wasn’t bad company to keep, Holmes admits that the experience “was intimidating a little bit, because it was at Skyline studios, which was a pretty well known studio at the time. And it was with RCA Novus. But again, everybody — with the exception of the producer,” he laughs, “was real encouraging and thought it was great. Having guys like that hearing me play, word got out.”
Like A Wildfire
Following the Criner gig, Holmes’ career continued to build with high profile gigs with the Zawinul Syndicate and the Herminators. But fate was about to tap him on the shoulder and lead him to a whole other level.
It was 1993. Holmes was in Vienna to play a jazz festival with Joe Zawinul, and Carlos Santana was scheduled to close the show. “There I was at the restaurant inside the Hilton in Vienna having breakfast and I saw Carlos walk in,” Holmes recalls. “He kind of saw me, and I waved at him and he came over to the table and sat down. We started talking about music. He loves Wayne Shorter and Weather Report and is a big John Coltrane fan, and he said he liked my playing. I said, ’Hey man, if you ever want to get together and play some time let me know’ — you know, not seriously thinking he would ever want to do that. So that night was the concert, and he and some of the other members of the band watched the Zawinul Syndicate show from the side of the stage. Then a few weeks later I got this call from his management saying, ’Hey, Carlos wants you to come and play.’”
In no time, Santana’s management flew Holmes out to California and rehearsals began. The guitarist must have liked what he heard, because the next thing he knew, Holmes was touring the country with Santana on a double bill with Bob Dylan. “It was pretty amazing. These were huge venues - a lot of sheds. It was my first big rock and roll tour and I learned a lot.”
Holmes rejoined Santana four years later, in 1997, for what was a rare moment of mega-success for any musician. The band recorded the song “Smooth,” penned by Rob Thomas, and had a certified smash hit on their hands, which featured a full-scale big production video, complete with closed sets and scantily-clad dancers. “Yeah, that was huge,” laughs Holmes. “It was the hottest time of the year, like the dog days of summer. I think it was in August, and they had all these dancers, and extras, and all of the cameras and, man - it was pretty crazy. It was actually filmed in Harlem around 114th street. They blocked off three blocks and they had a huge trailer. It was almost like a movie set.”
The Next Step
Although playing with Santana garnered Holmes a higher level of respect within the industry and multiple Grammy Awards, his work with the Steve Kimock Band seems to provide a deeper level of expression. “It’s completely different,” he enthuses. “In this situation, I’m more of a part of what’s going on musically. Steve’s a completely different kind of player and he’s much more of an interactive player. And even though we have compositions, there’s still room for interpretation every night. So every night is slightly different from the previous night, and I just feel I have more of a voice musically in terms of how I approach the music. With Santana, you know, he’s been around for so long and there are certain things that are kind of set in stone. Steve reacts more to what’s happening around him, he reacts more to how the band is interpreting the music. The way he phrases, it’s just a completely different thing.”
But his new creative opportunities don’t stop at the edge of the drum riser. SKB has also enabled Holmes to explore songwriting like never before. On SKB’s new CD, Eudemonic, Holmes penned two of the tunes himself, and co-wrote another pair with Kimmock. The two kindred musical spirits approach songwriting in an organic way, letting the situation remain fluid for maximum creativity.
“It’s different every time. Sometimes Steve will have an idea for a tune and bring it in and we’ll try to get it up and running, make adjustments here and there. Sometimes I’ll bring in a tune that’s finished, and it’s the same deal, making adjustments here and there, finding ways to make it work with the band. Sometimes we’ll write tunes together, like, he’ll bring in a tune and say, “I need a B and a C section.” I’ll get on the keyboards and work out ideas. It’s pretty flexible.”
Their partnership pays dividends on Eudemonic. The album is entirely instrumental, moving effortlessly from mellow, jazzy interludes to full-on guitar rock frenzies. At once jaw-dropping and toe-tapping, Holmes’ playing is a marvel of chops and restraint. But while there is so much to savor in his drumming, we couldn’t help but marvel at his deft maneuvering of odd time signatures. How does he make them feel so smooth?
“When I first approach playing odd meters, just in order to figure out what’s going on, I do what everyone else does,” he advises. “I find ways to divide it up, usually in groups of two or three in one way or another. After that I really try to hone in on the phrase of what’s happening as far as the music is concerned — if there’s a bass line, melody, or something that’s a definitive phrase. That’s when I try to stretch it out and make phrases longer, instead of playing it in shorter groupings. I believe the benefit in doing that is that it rounds out what you play. It keeps me from playing things in little square boxes. It doesn’t sound like math. Once I have a handle on the pattern, then I can play things over the bar.”
Such mastery of time and placement was not a quick or easy process. It took years of dedication and a particular concentration on the rudiments before Holmes’ hands were able to flow and swing the way they do. Such facility came as a result of culture shock, as much as anything else. “When I was a teenager, we moved from New York to southern Georgia. They didn’t have a regular stage band at the high school when I was there; all they had was marching band. So I really spent time dealing with drum corp-type drumming, really concentrating on the rudiments and writing and reading drum cadences. I focused very much on my hands and being able to play singles at a certain tempo, or sixteenth-note triplets — you know, some of those drum cadences can be pretty involved.”
Holmes put the skills he learned on the field together his wealth of real-life experiences, and applied them to the music that inspired him. “Later on, hearing drummers on records like Tony Williams or Billy Cobham, I’d try to get things to sound a certain way. I worked on different ways of getting shapes and colors around the kit. In order to get the certain sounds I wanted, I needed to have some degree of dexterity in order to get around the kit. So I worked on different ways of pulling the sounds out of the drum, using singles and doubles and alternating between the feet and the hands.”
In his pursuit of dexterity, Holmes takes a very serious and no-nonsense approach, banging out rudiments with strict attention to physical detail. “As far as rudiments are concerned, I’ll sit down on the pad and really examine what I’m doing. I’ll make sure my hands are doing what they are supposed to do, my arms are doing what they are supposed to do, that I’m not wasting any motion and there isn’t any superfluous movement going on. I try to be economical with how I’m using my body. And then when I sit down at the kit, I try to pay attention to how I’m striking the drum, how I’m getting around the kit.”
Let’s not mince words. When Holmes gets around the kit, jaws drop. To achieve such spontaneity and fluidity, Holmes’ practice routine features a mix of mechanics and goals, realized through an ever-changing approach. “I think the only thing that’s consistent when I sit down at the drums is that I pay attention to how I’m moving,” he says. “I’ll spend a certain amount of time working on that. After that, I’ll start working on things that I feel I’m deficient with. It’s easy to sit down and play things you already know, but the hard part is sounding bad — working on things that you need to work on. That’s hard to do. So I try to make sure everything is still working and make sure I’m doing things correctly. Then I take time to try to fix what I believe is wrong, or work on things I’d like to be able to do - things that I don’t do as well as I feel like I should.”
Holmes has had the chance to wear yet another new hat, as he honed production skills while working on his solo album, Twelve Months Of October. Apparently, the studio bug has bitten. “I really got into production and learning more about sound designing and recording other instruments when I was finishing my own record. I’ve learned a lot in the last year just from having to do it and get things done. But now I’ve realized that I really like shaping things sonically and coming up with production ideas.”
Holmes doesn’t mean to suggest that the process was a piece of cake. “The record was hard to finish, being out on the road and then coming home and doing bits and pieces here and there, but it’s finally done,” he says. “I’ve been working on it a long time. Originally, a few years ago, it was supposed to have been a quartet record, and it just didn’t really work out. The studio where I was at and the guys that I had - musically they’re great guys - but I didn’t have the right people for the music I was trying to put together. So I basically grabbed my tapes and started from scratch, and wrote all new music and changed the direction and sort of went with what I was being influenced by at the time. At the time [I was really listening to] Massive Attack, the Prodigy, DJ Goldie, and DJ Shadow.”
Such techno acts may seem like a stretch taste-wise for the man who makes a living touring with jazz and rock groups, but Holmes doesn’t see it that way. Raised in a musical house, his pallet is wide and open. “It’s funny, because I never thought of it as listening to it as different types of music. To me there was always an underlying common thread that ran through all of these different dialects of music. And when I talk to other people — and understandably so — they see it as listening to different kinds of music. But because of how I grew up listening to records in the house, they all seem related to me. My father loved music and played a little bit. My sister studied violin and sang — she went to Juilliard, actually. And my brother loved music, and there was rocking music in the house, but I’m the only crazy person that’s actually playing music for a living [laughs]. Anything that I liked, anything that appealed to me, I checked it out.”
This diversity of taste has helped Holmes relate to the wide range of fans who show up at SKB shows. “There’s no question that there are some Grateful Dead fans that come to the show,” he says. “It’s definitely a hippie-oriented audience. I think the core of it is, but the past two or three years it’s been expanding to people who have never seen the Grateful Dead. I’ve never seen the Grateful Dead. I didn’t know anything about the Grateful Dead until [Steve and I] started playing together. I’m excited about new fans, because I think the music transcends what a Grateful Dead audience would expect.”
In short, those fans can expect musical fireworks. Kimock’s slinky, emotive guitar is the perfect foil for a drummer of Holmes’ wide musical berth. Like lightning around the kit, and grease under a groove, Rodney Holmes is a musician to check out.
Drums: Tama Starclassic
1. 18" x 16" or 22" x 16" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5" Maple Snare
3. 10" x 8" Tom
4. 12" x 8" Tom
5. 14" x 14" Floor Tom
6. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
A. 14" Byzance Dry Hi-hats
B. 17" Byzance Brilliant Crash (Sometimes replaced by a 18" Byzance Brilliant Crash)
C. 10" Byzance Dry Splash
D. 22" Byzance Dry Ride (Prototype)
E. 15" Byzance Brilliant Crash (Sometimes replaced by a 16" Byzance Brilliant Crash)
F. 16" Byzance China
Rodney Holmes also uses Zildjian Sticks, Tama hardware and pedals, and Remo heads.
Guitarist's View: Steve Kimock On Holmes
It started off five years ago as a bi-coastal relationship: Steve Kimock emerged from San Francisco’s jam scene, his playing rich with echoes of Jerry Garcia, his discography a haze of collaborations with survivors of Jefferson Starship, the Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. And Rodney Holmes was all New York, busy and intense, his chops and feel forged in the jazz-funk furnace through dates with the Brecker Brothers, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter.
Then there was the commute: Separated by the entire continental U.S., the guys faced some unique logistical hurdles. Or, as Kimock puts it, “Getting together was a huge pain in the ass. You need plane tickets and rental cars and hotel rooms and per diems for the band and you feed this guy and that guy and you rent some gear …”
There was only one way to deal with it. “So,” the guitarist explains, “I moved to Pennsylvania, and it was like, ’Okay, now we can rehearse.’”
Hey, if you’re a dedicated bandleader, you do what you can to make it all work, especially when you’ve found the right drummer. “When you reach a certain level it’s understood that everybody you meet can play,” Kimock says. “At that point, when you’re putting your band together, it becomes a matter of the person’s professionalism or how they work with other people. With Rodney, I had all of that plus somebody who had an amazing command of the instrument in every way.”
Take, for example, the acid test: drum solos. No one is more skeptical about drummers going bonkers for ten unaccompanied minutes than other musicians. Yet Holmes proved the exception to that rule — a drummer whose solos were as fascinating as his grooves. Kimock goes even further: Those solos, he insists, were one of the highlights of the shows they played together.
“I don’t know if anybody really wants to listen to ’In-a-Gadda-da-Vida’ again,” he groans. “Ensemble drumming is much more interesting, where you get different styles going and there’s interplay between musicians. But Rodney’s solos have an ensemble feel. He’ll set up a little pattern and then build other patterns around them. Pretty soon he’ll have quite a few things going at the same time, all kinds of blazing stuff, but the original figure is still there too. Rodney does a lot of soloing with us, and through it all I’ll just sit on my stool and just beam at him because I’m so happy. He’s that good.”
Even so, working with him on their new album, Eudemonic, wasn’t necessarily all harmony and light, as both discovered when they agreed to work as co-producers. “For the purposes of analogy,” Kimock offers, “I’ll quote Ali Akbar Khan, who describes melody and rhythm as the flesh and bones of music. Rodney and I kept going back and forth between those two things in the control room. As we were playing back I’d reach over and turn up the guitar, trying to put more meat on the bones. Then he’d reach over, turn the guitar down, and turn the drums up. And I’d reach over and turn the drums down. More specifically, I’d push toward more timbre and tone color and variety of intonation. And in the same passage Rodney would push back toward the rhythm.”
The moral? “Well, I think Rodney came to understand that you’ve got to have the flesh or all you’re left with is this hard framework. I realized that you’ve got to have the bones too, or the whole thing just falls over. And we both learned that guitar players and drummers probably shouldn’t mix records together.”
Groove Analysis: Rodney Holmes Rips It Up On Eudemonic
Steve Kimock’s Eudemonic is an eclectic collection of musical styles, at times touching on country, R&B, Afro-Cuban, and jazz fusion, with more than a little hippie Jam Band rock thrown into the mix. Rodney Holmes is no slammer, but rather dances around the phrases, coloring them with lots of little embellishments, much like we’d expect from someone with his extensive background playing jazz. Here are a couple of his highlights from Eudemonic.
This 4/4 groove feels like an odd meter largely because of the clever bass phrasing of Alphonso Johnson’s bass line. The sixteen counts in each measure are divided into groups of 3-2-3-2-3-3, which sound like two groups of 5 and one of 6. I’ve indicated this bass phrasing in the first line so you can more easily see how Holmes follows the phrasing with his groove.