Grant Schroff Takes The Helm And Drives The Bus

The San Jose Jazz Festival is right around the corner from the DRUM! headquarters. We're taking advantage of this opportunity to highlight some of the artists we'll be hearing and photographing that we think you should know about. There are more than 120 shows on 12 stages featuring jazz, blues, Latin, funk, R&B, salsa, New Orlean, world and many other styles of music. The Polyrhythmics are a band that stands out due to tight afro-funk grooves and smooth percussion work. They'll be on the Big Easy stage Sunday August 14th at 4:30pm. Grant Schroff took some time off from touring to talk with us about the upcoming festival and what it's like to drum in a 8-piece band, before setting off the next day to continue touring with Polyrhythmics.

DRUM! How did you first get involved with Polyrhthmics?

Grant I was one of the founding members. The guitarist Ben Bloom and I started getting together with the bassist Jason Gray. From the beginning our intent was to get a large ensemble together. We started as a trio just working on grooves that we were interested in and then started recruiting different players back in 2010.

DRUM! How hard was that process of finding sympathetic players that wanted to get into that style?

Grant It wasn’t that hard. We had all been playing in the scene. Several of us went to Cornish College Of The Arts in Seattle, Washington. That’s where we originally met. Some of the other members were in the University of Washington music program. It wasn’t hard getting people together because at first we wanted to make a record. Everyone we recruited was busy but then as the project got more serious it became more of a priority for everybody. It kind of happened naturally.

DRUM! How many pieces is the band now?

Grant We’re 8 pieces. This summer we released a new single with a vocalist by the name of Lucky Brown. A lot of the summer festivals that we’re doing were featuring him on about 5 or 6 tunes. He won’t be at the San Jose Jazz Festival, but sometimes we tour with 9 members.

DRUM! We watched the live performance in the radio station we noticed a couple things.

Grant Yeah, KEXP. That’s Seattle’s killer radio station that’s recognized around the world.

DRUM! So the band is really tight. A lot of that seems to come from you and Ben, but you seem to keep the groove responsibility with different members of the band.

Grant The way that I like to think about it is that were all percussionists in that band no matter what we play. We try not to step on each other’s toes. That’s one challenge with a band this size. We try to keep as much space as possible and really allow those moments where each individual part can shine through.

DRUM! No doubt the guitarist is really a drummer in the band.

Grant Yeah for sure! I didn’t know Ben personally before we started the band. When I first saw him play in Seattle he seemed like he was all about rhythm guitar. That was his thing. The leads took second to the rhythm. I was like "This is the guy I need to seek out," so I gave him a call and it turned out he was actually thinking along the same lines as me. He had the same thought about a month prior to that. He wanted to also start something that was a large rhythmic ensemble oriented with Afrobeat elements.

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DRUM! Who’s writing the songs?

DRUM! That’s never an easy question to answer. The songs are written by a lot of members of the band. We don’t have a specific way that we write all of our songs. A lot of the times I will write a song and all the parts. I write all the rhythm section parts, all the horn parts chart them out and everything. Sometimes I’ll write the rhythm section grooves and our trumpet player will write the horn arrangements. Sometimes Ben Bloom will write a tune that is a rhythm section groove. And we also have a couple tunes that are written by our keyboardist Nathan Spicer. Trumpeter Scott Morning, Ben Bloom, or I write pretty much most of the music. It gets written a lot of different ways. One thing that is tough for us is to get together and rehearse. A lot of the times rhythm section will get together or if you’re teaching someone one of the songs you try to schedule all these rehearsals and then record them. We trade a lot of recordings on Google Drive and Dropbox. A lot of the times the first time we actually play the tune as a band might be at a sound check right before a gig. The one thing about this band that is really cool is that even if you write a whole tune yourself it will always sound like a Polyrhythmics tune because everyone puts their own stamp on it. All that stuff that gels and fills in the gaps always makes it uniquely sound like a Polyrhthmics tune. I don’t feel like I can write a tune for a different group of people and have it sound anywhere close to the same as what we have.

DRUM! You play a lot behind the congo player Lalo Bello. He takes a lot of solos. What’s your approach to working with all these types of different soloist in the band?

Grant My approach to working with any soloist is to serve the music as best as I possibly can. I consider myself a musician first and a drummer second. There are a lot of different types of solos that happen in our band and sometimes someone might be soloing over a hypnotic static groove that is not building or changing in anyway. Everyone is soloing and not deviating from a specific part but then we also have solo sections where everyone is trying to build something behind the soloist. That’s where I feel like the kit player kind of takes the helm and drives the bus. That’s where a lot of the fire and inspiration comes from. We try not to make them all the same. We try not to make it sound like some big band jam sort of song. Sometimes it’s just a sequence of hits.

DRUM! Your snare sounds terrific. It almost sounds like you’re playing above the drum. Your touch is light, you’re not trying to lay into it every second but your trying to keep a really busy feeling so you’re keeping that groove every time.

Grant Right, so first off I really like the sound of vintage drums. Right now I’m playing a 1968 Ludwig super classic. I’m also playing a Ludwig Supraphonic that isn’t so vintage. I had a vintage one for a while but the lugs kept on slipping on me so I got one from the 90’s and it sounds great too! That’s my favorite snare drum. I feel like when I was younger and in college I was always trying different drums and was always playing drums that were different or weird and then I checked out the Supraphonic which is supposed to be one of the most recorded snare drums of all time and realized that there’s a reason why it’s the most recorded snare drum of all time. When I’m playing the snare sometimes there’s these afro beat stuff where I’m playing in the middle of the snare and I’m not rim shotting at all and its all about the ghost notes and relationship between the snare and the high-hat kind of blending them together. There are some tunes where I’m just cracking it and every backbeat is just a rim shot. That thing just sings when you do that. It has a great backbeat and also just a lot of snare definition.

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DRUM! Do the drums sound better because it's red sparkle?

Grant Yes! [laughs] Hey man you look good and you sound good.

DRUM! There’s a reason why red drums and red guitars sell.

Grant Yup. I went to my favorite store in Seattle American Music. Went in for a stick bag and walked out with that Ludwig kit [laughs].

DRUM! That’s a good shopping trip!

Grant Yeah, I couldn’t say no man. It was a killer deal and it was in great shape. It just has that vintage sound. Those Ludwigs with the rounded bearing edges are just great for recording and it’s the sound that we go for. Our last two albums have been recorded to two-inch tape which I vastly prefer the sound. The sound of drums on two-inch tape (kick, snare, hi-hats) just sounds great!

I don’t think drums need to sound super pretty. With everything you can produce nowadays, why do you want to have the cleanest sounding, most beautiful pristine drum sound? Everyone keeps trying to find those old funk samples that have some dirt on them.

DRUM! So how about people you listen to for funk inspiration.

Grant When I started getting into funk music I was in seventh grade my drum teacher would give me James Brown records to play to during lessons. I would try to understand that music and sitting on a groove for awhile and making the kick, snare, hi-hat sound as good as it could possible be. Then the Tower Of Power record Back To Oakland was a huge game changer for. I would listen to Squib Cakes till that record broke. I went out and bought the David Garibaldi VHS that had the transcription inside which I still have and that was a huge thing for me. His approach to linear drumming and first learning what that was and first getting that sound. Mike Clark was a big one too. I remember he came to my school when I was in college and that was super awesome hanging out with that guy.

DRUM! Mike Clark is going to play at the same festival here!

Grant Another more modern drummer I like is Adam Deitch from Lettuce and he’s a producer too. I started getting into him more in college. I’m 30 years old and I feel like growing up with all this old funk stuff I was listening to a lot of 90’s hip-hop too. When I listen to him I hear that stuff come out and that’s something that is definitely a big inspiration in that kind of vibe.

DRUM! What cymbals are you playing in your kit?

Grant Right now I’m playing Bosphorous Traditional Series 14 inch hi-hats that I’ve literally had since I was a sophomore in high school and these things are like a fine wine. Dude they keep getting better every year. And then recently I’ve been playing over the hi-hat a Zildjian 20" Crash Of Doom and it’s a strong flavor. I really like it. Its big and trashy but doesn’t sound like a china. Then I also have a 20" Bosphorous Antique Series ride which I love, it has a killer bell. I got an 18" Istanbul Cindy Blackman Om Series cymbal and that crash is awesome. Its pretty dark and then I have a stack that’s made up of a 17" Zildjian Custom Dark K and the top is a 16" Dream Dark Matter cymbal. I use those mini Keplinger tambourine rings sometimes on my stack or on my hi-hat. Sometimes I’ll put them on my hi-hat because they sound really nasty and just get a really cool sizzle. His cymbals sound like pure evil too!

DRUM! Are we going to hear anything new when you guys get to San Jose?

Grant We have new material that is not recorded yet that we’ve been playing a little bit this summer that we have not played last time we were in the bay area. We’re constantly working on new material and a lot of it gets worked out on the road. There will be some new stuff!