Danny Frankel has done what every drummer wants to do: parlayed a lifelong love of hitting things into a full-time career. And he’s made it look easy – almost. Inspired by visionaries like jazz improvisational artist Paul Motian, Frankel’s made a name for himself combining traditional and unconventional drum and percussion combos, laying down the beat on myriad instruments including unusual homemade percussion pieces. His offbeat approach has kept his phone ringing with compelling opportunities over the years and has led to live and studio credits with Lou Reed, John Cale, Rickie Lee Jones, k.d. lang, Fiona Apple, Jewel, Everlast, Marianne Faithfull, Beck, Victoria Williams, Bo Diddley, Michael Penn, Robin Holcomb, Bill Frisell, Bebel Gilberto, Ronnie Montrose, Nels Cline, and Flight Of The Conchords, among many others.
“Basically, people know I play both drums and percussion and am open to different ideas,” he says. “When people call they usually want to put a different spin on things, or a track needs more convincing or more forward motion. It’s a fun challenge to maybe accent the upbeats or play a simple continuous groove. Sometimes I deliberately won’t go to where it’s referred to: if it’s Middle Eastern—sounding, maybe I’ll try something that’s not traditionally Middle Eastern, like using bongos instead of tablas to get another sound. My appreciation for this harkens back to hearing Brazilian jazz drummers Airto Moreira and Dom Um Romão, who added percussion to a minimal kit: bongos where a tom would be, a floor tom where a snare normally would be, a tambourine on a stand … I’ll put together a different arrangement depending on the situation.”
No object is out of Frankel’s percussive scope. The odder the item, the better. In fact, there’s nothing he won’t do to get the sound he’s after.
“I made some shakers with broken glass inside; there are others I made with pistachio shells. Very effective. They sound like a swarm of bees. I was on a session one time and they wanted a sound that I couldn’t figure out how to get, so instead of selecting something delicate or specific in my case, I just picked up the whole frickin’ case and shook that. It was this big, fiber trap case filled with all sorts of things. It almost sounded like one of those crash boxes [an old vaudeville term]. When I shook it, you’d still hear parts of it trail off.”
Oftentimes Frankel’s solution to a sound challenge is to go out to his Caprice Classic and dig around in its gigantic trunk for some lost or forgotten noisemaker. “I like being surprised,” he says. “One time I was playing with John Cale but I didn’t know until I got there. Somebody joked that they should follow me in my car with a gigantic microphone up against the trunk to record the sounds coming out of it. Sounded like a good idea to me!”
For Laurie Anderson’s Life On A String (2001), Frankel made his own crash box filled with all manner of metals, bells, etc., and dropped it hard on the floor for some unexpected sounds. “It’s very percussive and expressive and funky.”
Producer Mario Caldato Jr., who did a lot of the Beastie Boys’ records, got Frankel hired on Brazilian bossa nova artist Bebel Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo in 2008. “They wanted me not because I was some ace Brazilian technique guy, which I’m not; they wanted me to just do my thing. I brought my own kind of kit, including a contraption I made called the Hubkapaphone, which is springs stretched across a hubcap. I’ll play that instead of a cymbal. I felt like it made it a lot more personal using percussion [instead of] just a drum kit.”
Frankel’s attraction to offbeat grooves and instrumentation has been fueled by avant-garde jazz titan Paul Motian, with whom he had the good fortune to study in his early twenties. The experience opened Frankel’s world.
“I was very shy but I was driven to seek him out,” he recalls. “He said he wasn’t a teacher but for me to look him up when I was in town. I took the bus to New York for two years to work with him. It was really conceptual; he would tell me to think in colors or in images – like jumping up in the air – when I play. We’d take walks afterward and talk and it would often morph into something philosophical. He’d want me to read; Zen In The Art Of Archery was one of the books he recommended, which is not about drumming necessarily, but about the whole process and the philosophical approach. He was very nonconformist – a true artist – but at the same time very traditional. He was the first person, too, that I saw playing drums and percussion at the same time. He’d play maracas in one hand and sticks in the other. I was attracted to how he played rock, which encouraged me to play with abandon and led me to things like playing a fill up the drums (instead of down) and in a different order, and rearranging the kit from gig to gig, or song to song on a recording.”