Perhaps the percussion seed was sown for Frankel as a teen, on jaunts with his father to jazz clubs like the Showboat Lounge on 18th Street and Columbia Road in his hometown of Washington, D.C., where he recalls with a thrill seeing icons like Gene Krupa. The aspiring drummer got a helpful tip from a friend of his dad’s: learn bongo drums first. Bongos later became the instrument for which Frankel was best known.
“Then it was The Beatles, the English invasion groups,” Frankel says. “When I was growing up in D.C., the Folkways Festival presented a host of those early electric blues bands. I thought that was really cool; it was like a whole new language they were playing. I was playing drum kit and also percussion. My brother was in different bands at the time, [playing] psychedelic garage rock like ’96 Years’ by Question Mark & the Mysterians, and bands like The Animals and The Zombies – we played covers of that. From that, I’d play with friends of mine; we were interested in a lot of the more out-there stuff like Sun Ra or The Art Ensemble Of Chicago. We hung these metal pieces from a coat hanger as gongs.”
Frankel’s first big break was playing with D.C.’s art-rock outfit The Urban Verbs, from 1977 to ’82. They were known for making up their own language. Fronted by Roddy Frantz (brother of Talking Heads’ drummer Chris), they played gigs at CBGB and other seminal East Coast venues and caught the attention of Brian Eno, who facilitated a two-song demo that led to two albums with Warner Bros. that were produced by Mike Thorne and Steve Lillywhite.
Relocating to Los Angeles in 1983, Frankel landed in the Kamikaze Ground Crew, the support band for the juggling/comedy troupe The Flying Karamazov Brothers. “There was no audition,” he remembers. “One day, a 1958 Greyhound Scenicruiser was parked in front of our building in Hollywood. It was an all-brass band, just five jugglers, and me. Zany! We played a lot of old theatres and memorized the music to ’L'Histoire du Soldat [The Soldier’s Tale]’ by Stravinsky. It took us a whole month to memorize and we did that in Santa Cruz in a yurt!”
Off the road, Frankel played around town and in 1993 volunteered to fly to NYC to play a benefit for the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund on MTV'S 120 Minutes, playing behind friends including Michael Penn and Victoria Williams (whom the benefit was structured around). That led to his joining Lou Reed’s band and a three-year stint playing all the major late-night TV shows and appearing on some recordings with Reed, including the 1997 compilation September Songs: The Music Of Kurt Weill and 1997’s Live On Letterman: Music From The Late Show.
“On the Letterman show, after the sound check, I was in a silly mood and played one bar of a surf beat and then one bar of a songo – loud, and I heard Paul Shaffer screaming, ’My two favorite beats!’ We played songs from the Velvet Underground and it was with maximum respect that I played that floor tom, ride, and backbeat.”
Frankel also got to play with VU alum John Cale on his Circus record. “It was on the song ’Jumbo’ and because of my appreciation for Maureen Tucker, the original VU drummer, I set up a kit like hers, which was just snare and floor tom and cymbal and I stood up …the bass drum was not missing as I emulated her tribal, groovy sound she gets when riding the floor tom.”
Perhaps Frankel’s longest band stint was backing eclectic pop chanteuse k.d. lang from 2003 through 2010. During those years, he played on extensive tours and several albums, including her 2006 compilation Reintarnation and 2008’s Watershed. “During my time with k.d., the band changed three times around me. One of the studio records we did was Watershed, which was so creative for her. On one of the songs, we had to play in this tiny, tiny room, and I played percussion instead of a whole drum set. On another, I played two different drum kit tracks, without a click, so the time would be off slightly so it shimmered. When I joined she had just finished the duet record with Tony Bennett and she wanted to keep it in the jazz vein, so we wore suits and hats. I played her set almost exclusively with brushes and I had bongos where a rack tom would be in the tradition of Airto and Romão.”
These days, Frankel’s mixing it up on myriad shows and sessions, including album projects with Danish artist Jens Lysdal (whom he met while on tour with lang) and Daniel Carlson (helmed by Wendy & Lisa/Me’Shell Ndegéocello producer Chris Bruce), and collaborating with friend Michael Penn on music for the HBO hit Girls. In November 2012, he performed alongside Wilco guitar wizard Nels Cline and Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda and band at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in a “trialogue” of music; poetry; and painting that was inspired by iconic Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha. Frankel’s also featured in the book Sticks ’N’ Skins: A Photography Book About The World Of Drumming; he was included, he says, “on the recommendation of Jim Keltner, who’s a great friend and mentor and gave me a lot of encouragement when I didn’t know anyone here in L.A.” There’s talk about more collaborations with Cline. And Frankel is planning a new, more minimal-sounding solo album to follow in the wake of his two previous outings, 2002’s The Vibration Of Sound and 2010’s The Interplanetary Note/Beat Conference (both available on groundlift.org).