Jim Loughlin: Convention Be Damned
The vibraphone is prominently featured on a song called “Same Old Story,” the fourth track on moe.’s new album, No Guts, No Glory. For percussionist Jim Loughlin, the new album, like those that have preceded it, is a kind of documentation of where he is at this point in his evolution as a percussionist, and where he might be going. With each recording he’s made with moe., Loughlin says, he’s “been in a way different place musically. Because it depends on how deep into an instrument I am at the time. And for the past at least three records, I’ve been really mallet-centric. That’s what I want to do. When a song gets written, I’ll pick up mallets right away.”
Reached at his central Massachusetts home in March, before the band headed to Europe to tour in support of the new album, Loughlin talked at length about the musical path that led him to the vibraphone – a journey he began as a teenage bass player and drum set player before shifting his focus to hand percussion and mallet instruments. Having studied at Long Island High School For The Arts (then Nassau Cultural Arts Center) while attending Plainedge High School in Massapequa, New York, and after spending a semester each at the Aaron Copland School Of Music at Queens College and Nassau Community College, Loughlin auditioned as a bass player for the music program at the University Of Buffalo. Because a degree in bass performance required students to play upright instruments, which Loughlin didn’t have and thus had no experience playing, he says, matter-of-factly, “I auditioned as a percussionist, but then got the bass chair in the big band.” Soon thereafter, in the early 1990s, he joined moe. as the band’s drummer, and, eventually, the only class he found himself enrolled in at the University Of Buffalo was the music department’s big band. Loughlin explains. “So I did all the big-band concerts and rehearsals and stuff, and then my other time was spent rehearsing and playing (drums) with moe.”
For completely understandable reasons, he didn’t graduate. Still, one could say that Loughlin got what he needed from the University Of Buffalo’s music department. During those early days with moe. – Loughlin left the band in 1995 to join Yolk, a Binghamton, NY—based seven-piece outfit that he described as being “like a Fishbone kind of experimental-funk” group, and returned to moe. in 1999 as the band’s percussionist – Loughlin incorporated a piccolo xylophone into his setup, perhaps an unwitting hint at what was to come. Upon first rejoining moe. in 1999 as the band’s percussionist, Loughlin traveled with a modest complement of gear – congas, timbales, a guitar, and a washboard.
But that rig would soon grow to include a piccolo bass and various other percussion instruments. “I kept cycling different instrument through for the first couple years,” he says. “There was a while I played melodeon as well. The piccolo bass was there for a long time and I played the didgeridoo for a while on a couple tunes.”
Today, Loughlin’s live rig includes a malletKAT, vibraphone, xylophone, congas, bongos, timbales, a gong drum, and a handful of auxiliary percussion instruments. When the band heads overseas and rents backline equipment, Loughlin leaves the real mallet instruments at home and grudgingly lets the malletKAT suffice.
In terms of his creative attention, Loughlin is focused squarely on those real mallet instruments, especially the vibraphone, which he’s owned for six years – thanks, in part, to some encouragement from one of the band’s crew members. “We had a monitor engineer, Bill Evans,” Loughlin explains, “and he ended up producing The Conch with us, and he was constantly like, ’I can’t stand the vibraphone sound on that malletKAT. I can’t. It’s not right.’
“Finally, through saving money and selling some of the crap that’s sitting around my house, I actually had the money for a real vibraphone. And that changed everything. Once I actually started playing a real vibraphone, it was like, ’Oh my god, this is such a great instrument.’ And it really brought together two worlds for me: everything I had learned as a bass player – a pitched-instrument player – and everything I had learned as a drummer.” And that meant that Loughlin’s focus turned to soloing – and to taking chances live, damn the musical consequences.
“In the beginning,” Loughlin says, openly and with charming self-deprecation, “I’d play myself right out of the solo. I’d be standing there like, ’I don’t know what to do,’ trying to nod to somebody like, ’Save me.’” But that was then. And listening to his playing on No Guts, No Glory, one can appreciate just how impressively far, to this point, Loughlin has taken his exploration of the vibraphone.
“Music itself and understanding and thinking about music on its own isn’t new to me,” he points out. “But this instrument still is. And I mean, I’m constantly listening to vibraphone players anywhere I can find them – obviously Gary Burton and Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, the big names – but there are only a handful of new vibraphone players. And in the scene that I play in, it’s just me and Mike Dillon.” Talking about Dillon – the classically-trained punk-rock vibraphonist who’s as much an obsessive practice fiend and historian as he is an edgy musical provocateur – Loughlin says, without overstatement, “He’s a monster, that dude.”
Playing mallet instruments, for Loughlin, is a wholly different exercise than play- ing drum set, which he took up originally as a youngster (shortly after picking up the bass) because that’s what his friends were doing. “It’s less visceral for me,” he says, explaining, “I’m a metal head. So I’m a very aggressive, heavy-hitting drummer. Behind the mallets I have to think more, especially at this stage in the game. You know, I’ve been playing the drums for 30 years. So there are certain times, if I’m playing a show as a drummer, I can just sort of zone out.”
When he’s playing the vibraphone, Loughlin is actively thinking about where his improvisation is headed next. “Live Jım Loughlin drumming was never a work in progress,” he says. “My playing live, on a vibraphone, even on stage, I’ll be working on stuff, whether it’s apparent or not. There are certain nights where to get out of some kind of rut maybe, or if I start feeling tentative, I’ll intentionally set some kind of rule, like, ’Don’t play the root note for as long as you can.’ If it’s something I find myself doing often – descending thirds are a big thing that I do – I’ll try not to do it. I can’t practice that stuff at home. It just doesn’t relate the same, I don’t think.” The ultimate difference, as he sees it, between onstage experimentation as a drummer and challenging oneself in that situation as a mallet player, is how it affects other bandmembers. “In a vibes solo, if it’s bad, it’s on me. And no one else really looks worse for it. Drumming, you can make the whole band look horrible,” Loughlin says, coining a new maxim that could appear on a niche-market bumper sticker: “A bad drummer is a bad band. A bad vibraphonist is a bad vibraphonist.”
And so he challenges himself on the vibraphone in live situations because that’s how he pushes himself as an improvising musician. “A lot of soloists inhibit themselves, because you either think you can’t do something or you shouldn’t do something,” he says. “It’s almost like a little bit of fear when you’re playing. And if you watch guys that can really solo and really play, they’re not scared. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and they move on. But if it does, sometimes it’s amazing.”
Don’t mistake Loughlin’s willingness to move on from a so-so solo as a sign of indifference. Whether successful or otherwise, he scrutinizes the results of his experimentation after the fact. “The first couple days, when I get home, I actually won’t play anything, and I’ll go back and listen to some shows – any show I can remember where either I did something I want to remember or I did something that was really bad,” he says. “Or I tried something new and I want to hear how it sounds because you can’t really tell that night. So I’ll try to listen back to the tour – my parts in new songs, or solos that I had taken, stuff like that – and just do that for the first couple days.”
While his focus has admittedly been mallet-centric over the past few years, Loughlin’s interest in bringing new techniques and sounds to moe. began with Latin percussion instruments when he returned to the band in 1999. At that point, Loughlin says, he hadn’t played hand drums in years. And some of what he’d remembered from an Afro-Cuban drumming class he took at the University Of Buffalo, it turned out, he’d misremembered. “I ended up setting up my congas backwards – so I set them up lefty but played righty,” he says, with equal parts amusement and nonchalance. “It seemed comfortable, and then I was like, ’But wait. Something’s weird.’ So then I just started splitting up all the palm-tip stuff in between hands and squared that away and then I just kept barreling forward that way.”
For a while, his new setup hampered his playing, mostly, he says, “because I couldn’t slap as effectively with my left hand for as long a time as I could with my right.” Eventually, and not at all surprisingly, he worked out the kinks, which included an unconventional approach to tuning his congas. “My quinto is in front of me, conga on my right, tumba on my left,” he explained. “But I tune my conga closer to my quinto than to my tumba. So the conga is actually more on the high side than it would normally be in a three-drum setup. I sort of had to adjust for bad habits that I developed. Maybe it goes back to table- and desk-drumming in class: Even though my right foot is my kick-drum foot, when I was thinking of low-end stuff, it always went to my left hand for some reason. So I inadvertently switched the drums, without being aware of it.”
For Loughlin, convention isn’t important – in fact, it’s not of any interest at all, and those setup and logistical details are only important in terms of how they affect his playing. “I just hear where the accents and tones are, put them on the correct drums, and then figure out a sticking, for lack of a better word,” he says, matter-of-factly and not at all uncomfortably. In other words, his setup is what it is, and he has more important things to devote his attention to – learning and playing, mostly.
When it comes to the vibraphone, Loughlin does a lot of his learning on the Jım Loughlin job, and wouldn’t have it any other way. “In learning to play the instrument in the environment of this band, I’m less of a stylistic mallet player,” he points out. “I’m not trapped in any mindset when something is presented to me.” Likewise, the musicians whose playing has most influenced Loughlin are players who pushed the envelope and tested themselves and musical convention itself. “The earliest, biggest influence I ever had was [late Weather Report bassist] Jaco Pastorius,” he says. “He influenced not just my bass playing but compositionally, his approach to music. He was just willing to do anything, really. And then, when I heard first heard Zappa, it was Ruth Underwood. She’s been the reason that I’ve always wanted to play mallets in a rock-and-roll environment.”
In terms of drum set playing, Loughlin cited Terry Bozzio as a huge influence, along with other players whose approach to drumming is “outside the box.” Recounting watching Buddy Rich perform with Frank Sinatra on television when he was 13 or 14 years old, Loughlin says, with the kind of contagious enthusiasm he probably had at the time, “I still have never seen anything like it to this day.”
Immediately after watching Rich play, he went into his basement to try to figure out just a little bit of what he’d just seen. That kind of moment seems like something that happens to Loughlin a lot – a jolt of inspiration that sends him on an independent journey of pedagogical discovery. If there’s one ironic aspect of where that journey’s brought him it’s that “the two instruments I was truly schooled in I don’t play with moe.”