Danny Frankel: Kamikaze Soundscaper

danny frankel

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.”

Industrial Strength Toolkit

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.”

Forward Motian

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.”

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Urban Kamikaze Roots

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!”

Watershed Moments

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.”

Vibrations Of Now

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).

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“After all the years of doing it, I’m blown away by this whole thing that happens when you get together and play with people,” he says. “You go to this place; you meet these people; and you make this mysterious noise together that they call music. I love the spontaneity of it all. I call it ’dancing in your mind.’ You have a sound looping through your mind but you’re not playing it literally. The other day someone wanted me to record some percussion overdubs. I did something I’m really comfortable with, which is to show up without anything planned and to start picking things up; maybe playing one thing in one hand while the other hand is doing something else. It’s that feeling of just jumping into a lake without thinking about it first. It keeps it very fresh that way. I like the idea, too, of getting to a place and not having something and looking around and finding things; rummaging through a parking lot and finding a piece of metal that could be used as a ride instrument. Some people think of me as creative and sensitive but there’s also time to be crazy and nutty. There are so many ways to paint a picture!”

Frankel’s Six Philosophical Rules About Playing And Gear

1. Simplicity will set you free: That simple magic thing that you stumble on while playing will have an infinite shelf life.

2. Space is the place: It makes the music of the drums dance.

3. Don’t be so literal: The other day on a pop song I played sixteenth-notes in a triangle with my right hand and in my left I was holding and muting the triangle – not necessarily in a pattern, just letting it come and go, and it made the groove breathe. Freddie Staehlie (one of the original drummers with Dr. John) told me the same thing about playing on a snare, where you just let the sticks hit rimshots as they may.

4. Be open to ideas: A nondrummer may have an idea for you and because it’s non-drumistic it could possibly totally open your mind!

5. Think outside the kit: Set up your drums/percussion kit according to the groove. It doesn’t have to be so standard. You will get closer to the vibe if you arrange the kit to physically fit the groove, even if it looks goofy – i.e., a floor tom where a snare usually is, congas flipped around (high drum on right, low on left; vice versa for left-handed players).

6. Write it out: Write inspiring ideas down before you record or play out, but when you finally play, still lean toward your instincts. (This varies depending on who’s running the ship.)

danny frankel

Frankel's Setup

Drums
1 20" x 16" Gretsch bass drum
2 14" x 6" World Max Black Dawg snare drum
3 14" x 14" Gretsch Floor Tom

Cymbals
A 13" Paiste Signature Series Hi-Hat
B 20" Paiste Traditional Series Crash
C 20" Paiste Twenty Series Ride
D 12" Greg Keplinger Custom Gong

Percussion
E Percussion Latina Peruvian Cajon
F Izzo Pandeiro w/ Danmar clamp
G Gon Bops Mariano Bongos
H Vaughncraft Tambourine w/ mount by Professional Drum Shop
I Pete Engelhart Sate
J LP toys including JamBlocks and Vibra-Slap
K Custom Hubkap-A-Phone
L Custom tiki god wood chimes

Electronics
M Korg Wave Drum