Born in Switzerland and brought up all over the world, Jojo Mayer was always exposed to a wide range of musical and cultural influences. His father, being a bass player himself, awoke his interest in music and introduced him to jazz. Years later, curiosity and wanting to strive for more brought Mayer to New York which would lead his musical path into a new direction and make him the foremost proponent of a new generation of drummers to replicate the computer generated beats of electronic music onto the drum set.
Amongst drummers Jojo is mostly known for his unbelievable proficiency in pretty much any hand or foot technique out there – and for his two DVDs “Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer” I &II, breaking it all down and giving us a chance to at least attempt similar things.
I caught up with Jojo before the London gig of his band Nerve to chat about his adopted home New York, his contribution to the drum scene and the state and future of the music scene.
You slipped into the jazz side of things very early on.
Yes. My dad is a jazz musician so I got acquainted with that culture very early on but I always listened to pretty much every style of music. I was exposed to everything: classical music, r’n’b, rock….
Was jazz the reason you chose New York?
Perhaps yes. It wasn’t just the jazz there though, it was Hip Hop too. I remember when I first saw the film Wild Style, that really had an impact on me. The whole old school Hip Hop thing, the breakdancing, the graffiti and all that had a strong impact on me. I guess the ‘street’ side of me was attracted to that, but the school was jazz.
The instrument I play comes from jazz and I wanted to play jazz but I realized that if I’d stay in Switzerland I wasn’t gonna get to play with the people I wanted to play with. I wasn’t gonna play with Jaco Pastorius, Weather Report or Miles Davis, I understood that I needed to get my ass off and relocate. Something strange happened though – arriving in New York in the early 90s, jazz was deteriorating before I’d even got there. I came to realise that I had come 40 years too late and that I had a very European eclectic idea what jazz was. It constitutes freedom and evolution but jazz was already very academic back then and there were all these little camps that hardly communicated within each other. I guess that’s human nature but I think it’s just stupid. Today it’s like in the DJ community: “We do this style which is at 123 BPM, we don’t talk to people who do 226 BPM”.
That was a difficult thing because I always like the music but I understood that jazz had its day as far as the community goes. The cultural relevance of it is no longer there and it has become a geeky, academic operation so I started to expose myself to other things.
I learned that I was not gonna go into Hip Hop because I just couldn’t hang with it on a social level. It was too violent and dishonest, I didn’t like it.
I ended up within this thing that just started to formulate which was kind of like Black Rock and Neo Soul and worked with Meshell Ndegeocello for about three years, people like James Blood Ulmer, Vernon Reid, and with a band called Screaming Headless Torsos with guitar player David Fiuczynski which was a fusion, rock, r’n’b hybrid.
Every time I started to do music it was with the crazy people. I started to understand that my position was at the fringe and that my nature was to be an outlier and pioneer that goes into the uncharted waters.
Not so much frustration as a disenchantment. Shit was not happening anymore. In jazz nowadays you cannot do what Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or John Coltrane did – you can’t do that anymore today. You can’t rock a boat in jazz to that degree. I believe what I do today is still jazz because it largely articulates of improvisation and beats that have a certain momentum and make you wanna move. We’re trying to express ourselves authentically. If that’s not jazz then I don’t know what is. I don’t believe in labels anymore though, I think all that stuff is outdated.
The problem is that nobody listens to music anymore. We have to face that the music industry is finished and it’s only the first industry of the 20th century that is going belly up. I think on a philosophical level possibly the entire protocol of industrialism is going belly up now because we exit the age of industrialism and enter the age of technology. Technology develops at an incremental speed. The protocol of industrialisation is no longer able to keep up with it because it relies on exploitation and planning. In a time where you cannot plan ahead, you can not have industry anymore, at least not as we know it. That’s falling apart so improvisation, human creativity and on-the-spot problem solving is gonna be much more important. Planning ahead is just not possible anymore.
In 1984 the future was 15-30 years; today we have no idea what the world is gonna look like in 15 months. A year ago none of us anticipated the possibility of Donald Trump being President, Brexit or Turkey being a dictatorship and throwing loads of innocent people into prison. We don’t know, maybe the same thing will happen here soon too. We cannot plan ahead so we have to embrace human creativity and the basic value that makes it worth it striving for survival because otherwise why bother to do anything?! I think I’m trying to communicate this with my music and what I do. I don’t think I need to prove to the world that I’m good at playing drums. I wanna use my capabilities for something more important.
Do you think music is gonna strive more for “in the moment” and creativity, or is it all just gonna go downhill because everybody keeps doing the same old stuff?
Well music is made by people so it all depends on what type of turn society is gonna make. It’s hard to simplify those things, there are very complex forces at work. Trying to simplify it to at least get my foot in the door to make people think about it I think is this: This protocol of the 20th century apparently does no longer work because everything is falling apart everywhere. People can no longer tell the difference between whats true and what’s not. I’m doing a lot of research trying to inform myself on what’s going on in the world and even for me it’s becoming more and more difficult to work out the sources – who’s got an agenda, who’s telling the truth? If art has any function then it’s to recalibrate our perception which is completely messed up. Let’s put it like this: people are scared shitless because of the situation that we’re in. Fear has always been exploited by the same agenda, it always ends up in the same place and we’ve experienced that a couple of times – the most prominent one was probably the Second World War. Before the First World War actually we had a very similar situation like the one we have today. People don’t know what’s going on, someone gives them a very simple solution, they’re incapable of making up an opinion for themselves so they fall pray to someone who exploits their fear and anger. People believe it and support it not knowing that they’re really gonna get it up the ass from exactly the people they believe will solve the problem. That’s nothing new, it has happened over and over again. The big tragedy is that we’re incapable of learning from it.
When we talk about music I would say: when people are scared right now, they look for safety and security. On the other hand we have freedom. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Security and freedom are on opposite positions of the balance. You have to decide how you negotiate between them but you can’t have them both to the same degree.
Art and music as an art form relies on the freedom of expression and risk-taking. Freedom is not safe, it’s dangerous, but security without freedom is slavery. What we see right now is first of all the incapability to focus and listening to music because the attention span has regressed so much from a decade of assault from social media. Plus things become meaningless. jazz, one of the most incredible art forms of the 20th century; rock’n’roll, an expression of rebellion and descant, have become storefronts for bullshit. I’m not saying there is no good jazz or rock out there, there certainly is, but as a genre it’s bullshit. The same goes to say about hip hop and pretty much any other accomplishment. Communism essentially is not a bad idea, it’s got beauty in it, but looking at the 20th century you can definitely tell that it was disastrous. We have to elevate ourselves as a humankind and become more defined and I think music is a tool for that. Music can transport all these values. All the music that’s been influencing me – where it was Louis Armstrong, Hendrix, Gustav Mahler or Aphex Twin – all these people and their music communicates the inherit human values that are precious to me: compassion, courage, idealism and all the things that bring out the greatest in human achievements.
Well the music industry no longer exists.
If you want that question answered you need to follow the money and you will understand who owns that chain of clubs or this and that channel, then you won’t be surprised not to see a little more groundbreaking stuff in popular culture. We’re in a situation that existed before so why should artists or musicians today be spared the leg work that Chuck Berry or Louis Armstrong had to do. Those guys were black, living in a country where you could just kill a black person and possibly walk away from it. That big culture came from standing up to it. Same with Hip Hop and everything that kind of seems to matter.
New York has now flatlined culturally, and I don’t think it will recover from it because there is too much money there. It’s like a Madame Tussaud’s version of the former New York.
Do I sense a little tiredness from New York there?
Well, it’s an international problem. For the price that I’m paying for a nice apartment in the middle of Soho I could live in a 15 bedroom mansion with a swimming pool in some other places in the world. I think the big centres will all loose their relevance culturally in the long run. They are just not the places for art anymore.
New York is becoming like Monte Carlo. It has been cannibalized by it’s own mythology. The 1% moved in not to contribute but to consume a mythological atmosphere that was once created by idealistic artists. Those artists that drive on idealism, unless they have rich parents, can no longer afford to live there. Therefor the cultural output of a city like New York today compared to a former output has as much resemblance as Jaws 4 to the original. There still is a shark and people get eaten…
You’re self-taught. How do you get from there to being one of the technically most accomplished drummers we have today?
One of the things that comes from being self-taught is that you learn to observe very carefully and analyse what you saw. This is very different to having a teacher who says “here’s an exercise, practice it and come back next week”. I never did that. My drive was open. I learned to play the drums the same way I learned to talk, the same way I learned to run or to swim. Nobody really showed me, I imitated my parents. I’m a very, very careful observer and pay a lot of attention. What probably opened the door for me being able to understand certain things and show other people is that I have a sense of awareness and alertness to pick up on very small nuances which are important that escape most people.
Back in the days when I went to see Billy Cobham play we didn’t have iPhones or YouTube so I really had to pay attention to not miss anything. I have a very good musical memory, I’m close to perfect recall. Sometimes I can listen to a song once and play it. I think most kids have that capability to focus their attention on something they wanna be good at. Way before schools brainwash them and deter them from being authentic individuals sacrificing their individuality and possibly their biggest talents in order to fit in with everybody else.
So yeah careful observation, analysis and imitation paired with probably making every mistake in the book. I’ve been falling on my face so many times but I kept getting up.
I never had drum lessons but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have teachers. I had a lot of people that gave me very good advice or showed me certain things. For example Jim Chapin showed me the Moeller stroke at 3 o’clock in the morning in some hotel room where a bunch of guys were hanging out around a minibar.
Well, the medium of DVDs is finished but of course I’m not finished, I know a lot of stuff that’s not out there. I think I made my contribution towards that and there are way more important things to communicate – part of it is this interview. I’m putting my mind a lot to music education, the limits of it and how the way we teach music does no longer work because music and society are changing. Yeah, I’ve got something on the back-burner that just needs some more time to evolve. I don’t think I’ll be putting out any more product though, the next thing I’ll be doing people will have to show up for and get their asses up.
The number one question in education should be: “What are we educating people for?”. I’m trying to articulate that question more clearly for myself. There is so much information out there already. Of course I could write a book on polyrhythms or whatever but I think the drum thing is not big enough for what I want to communicate so I will try to articulate a different platform.
Do you sometimes feel a bit misunderstood when people think you’re just that ‘technique guy’?
Of course but what are you gonna do? Sean Connery has to clarify he’s not just James Bond, he’s an actor who can do other things. That just comes with the territory.
I made those DVDs to help people, demystify technique and help them acquire it for themselves. It just gets annoying when it becomes pornographic. People show up to my gigs, don’t even look up from the screen of their iPhone pointing it at my feet with the facial expression as if they were watching porn. That’s definitely less fun to play for that audience than to play for a girl that gets up dancing.
There’s a movie coming out about you – “Changing Times”?
Yes. I was approached almost four years ago by someone who wanted a movie about me but we couldn’t really come to terms on what it should be about.
That was until I found that the initiator really could articulate the point of view of what it means to be an artist that wants to push forward in a cultural climate that is receding backwards. I think that’s what the movie is about.
They followed me around for about 18 months. We were in Europe, Switzerland, London, Japan, Hong Kong, United States – they followed me around the world quite a bit.
Maybe it’s a more personal movie than I anticipated but it came out pretty nice. It’s actually pretty weird to see myself being deconstructed like that but I’m fine with it because Alexis Amitirigala has got a lot of love for those things we believe are important.
For me it was a great experience. It was strange though to put a frame around me to communicate to the world other than my drums but I think it was good.
I’m gonna premier the movie at a couple of international movie festivals but once that’s done it’ll probably be on the internet and people will be able to just download or stream it.
Following up that message of the movie: what would be your advice for drummers who want to get out of the monotony of nowadays pop music?
Well, start a band or start something. Start something. That’s a good idea. Start something somewhere, somehow, find a way. It’s not gonna be more difficult than it was for Fletcher Henderson, Jimi Hendrix or any of those guys. Start the conversation, it’s not about ending it with a winning argument.
Some people have very strange ideas on how this thing is supposed to work. I meet people in New York and go: “So what do you do?”. “I’m a singer.” “That’s cool, do you play any gigs soon where I can check it out?”. “Oh no, I don’t perform live, I have a different business plan.” You hear weird shit like that which I guess is reflected in the sorry ass music culture we have today. There is great stuff out there though. Kendrick Lamar is an exception, James Blake is exceptional. There are people who do it. And how? They started something and they found their voice. You’ll figure out who you are and what your relationship is to this whole thing. One of the problems why we’re in such a bad shape and why our culture is so insecure is because people don’t know who the f**k they are.
Do you think people nowadays might just not dare to find out who they are out of fear of not fitting in?
What those people have to understand is that it’s not the job of the artist to fit in, it’s the job of the artist to change the f***ing world – to change the course of how things are done. It’s some bullshit f***ing Voodoo of greedy record company executives that make you believe that you’re job is to fit in so they can make money off what you do.
It’s time to look at history and look what brought out Van Gogh and other big guys. There are enough contemporary examples. Not as much as in the 50s and 60s but we still have people like Banksy – people where you can go: ‘oh, that’s cool, that has integrity, sense of humour, sense of freedom’ and so on.
I can not control what people think of me but that shouldn’t be my concern. My concern should be what I believe is important and hopefully I have a positive impact on my surroundings – and my surroundings evidently is also society. I can’t really change the problem we’re facing with global warming and water shortages and stuff like that but I can leave people to be more empathic to their surroundings. I can show them what it means to be human and behave like a human: take risks like a human, fail like a human, be successful like a human – and not catering to the lowest common denominator in order to be accepted. If we’re doing that it’s gonna go downhill in the same way it’s been going downhill for the past two decades. Nothing is gonna change unless people are gonna change it – and that might be this one person who reads this interview.
Look, it’s really exciting, we have a clean slate! Do what you want!
Our new NERVE record is about to be released and we will be touring troughout most of spring and early summer. We’ll hit Japan, Continental Europe and UK again.
Within this tour we will also do a special event at the Venice Biennale, one of the worlds most important art shows. I’m very exited about this as it is the first time that we switch platforms from the music world to the art world. I’m can’t reveal any details at this point, but i will have an opportunity to collaborate with some incredible team of artist, with is very exiting.
We will also release a series of new videos including a ‘Live in the studio’ production. We played everything live and improvised. It was a real challenge, but i think it will reveal a lot of the inner workings of NERVE to our fans. We hope to articulate and present the idea to play machine music by humans in realtime with this better. Something that we have been doing for a long time, but could never documented like that.
So Nerve is obviously the absolute focus at the moment?
Yeah pretty much. Maybe twice a year I do some collaborations with other people but I’m out of the sideman game. It doesn’t interest me anymore and I think it’s futile.
There is really no pop music that would interest me remotely to participate. You could count the interesting things on one hand. So yeah, my collaborations are mostly one-off type of projects that allow me to escape from the monoculture of my own universe which is necessary sometimes.
Thanks a lot for your time Jojo!
Interview by Tobias Miorin
Photos by Dave ‘The Drummer’ Hughes