Street Drum Corps: Junk Yard Jam
How A Trio Of Indie-Band Casualties Went From Banging On Cans To Becoming The Cirque Du Soleil Of Percussion. Next Stop? Vegas, Baby.
In a grotty dressing room backstage at The Roxy, a storied music venue on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, Adam Alt is peering into a mirror as he applies zombie contacts onto his eyeballs. “Check this out,” the 32-year-old drummer says, patting a leather scabbard strapped to his leg. Instead of holding a knife, this one’s got a pair of drum sticks wedged into it. “Never know when you’re going to need more of these running around on stage.”
It’s a good six hours till show time, but when you’re a member of Street Drum Corps — a three-man percussion orchestra — it’s all about prep. In a few minutes Adam’s brother, Bobby, 33, walks in wearing a leather jumpsuit and combat boots, an ensemble that goes unusually well with his blue Mohawk and aviator sunglasses. “This is not what we discussed,” he says, ripping the plastic from his dry-cleaning. Looks like there was a miscommunication between Alt and the seamstress doing the alterations on an Evel Knievel–ish costume he designed for an upcoming performance. “I already wrote her the check, too.”
During the diatribe, in struts Frank Zummo, 32. A compact, muscular dude with a shaved dome and enough energy for a dozen people, Zummo is the third point in this triangle of terror, and, for all intents and purposes, the band’s rhythmic bedrock given that his is the only workstation with a traditional drum set and cymbals. He gives my hand a bone-churning grip and flashes that easy smile before excusing himself for sound check.
The occasion is the penultimate night of Street Drum Corps’ weekly residency at The Roxy. For a band that just got off Linkin Park’s Project Revolution tour and direct support for 30 Seconds To Mars in Europe, isn’t a Thursday night showcase something of a step down? “This is like the best idea we ever had,” says Bobby, sounding almost insulted. “It’s so hard to do anything musical in L.A. Everyone’s in their own word or just totally indifferent. There is no scene! There’s no real music community like what we experience on the road. This was the perfect way to have that connection with our fans while we’re back home.”
The Freaks Come Out At Night
Fast forward to 9:25 p.m. and it’s almost show time. While assorted groupies mingle around the mini bar backstage, SDC put on their game face — literally. Zummo, hammering out different note groupings against the countertop in the dressing room, resembles a medieval executioner in gas mask. Bobby could be one of those biker hellions from Mad Max, and Adam, a peroxide pirate back from the dead.
Bursting onto the stage minutes later, the trio raise fists in unison like a Roman triumvirate before launching into a pummel-fest with all the choreographed production and assorted racket — electronic and acoustic — that no one should be allowed to do in this enclave of teased hair and retro-rock worship. Never mind that the club’s at two-thirds capacity, they play the show as though it were the last of their career. All three men flail mercilessly on a range of metallic refuse in a way that’s reminiscent of taiko drumming crossed with high school marching band.
The single-stroke battery is the default mode for SDC. It’s only later that the more exotic sonic excursions occur such as when Adam works a circular sander against a tail pipe, creating a root-canal-in-hell ambience. At the other extreme, Bobby croons a duet with his girlfriend, Caroline D’Amore, like a goth Sinatra in the year 2057.
Performances routinely feature cameos from drum royalty including Brooks Wackerman, Max Weinberg, and Stephen Perkins (see sidebar) or the odd celebrity such as Jeremy Piven. Original Chili Peppers/Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons was supposed to be tonight’s special guest but he cancelled at the last minute. The Used frontman Bert McCracken, an early champion of the Corps, as well as The Used drummer Dan Whitesides and Sparta drummer Tony Hajjar, graciously step in but struggle to keep up with the disciplined cadences that ricochet between Bobby and Adam.
At one point, Bobby lets lose a first-snare solo with a pair of graphite batons against the bottoms of cookware that a young fan in the front row holds up for him. The elder of the Alt brothers could easily have ignored her, but if you can’t think on your feet (and hands) you’ve got no business being in Street Drum Corps.