One From The Archive - Interview With Jo Jo Mayer -2008
Jo Jo Mayer...taking the mystery out of technique
As pro, amateur or even enthusiast drummers, every now and then we come across an inspiration of a drummer who innovates and dares to push the boundaries of their limitations in order to make their musical statement.
Jo Jo Mayer has become one of those iconic figures in drumming and is at the forefront of pushing his own boundaries and simultaneously gaining the admiration of drummers from all genres of music. His musical approach explores not just drumming but broad aspects of musical expression. Encompassing a heady mix of jazz, rock, funk, reggae and even disco and popular music, he has translated and expanded all these styles into a rhythm culture that incorporates the high energy and subtleties of ‘breakbeat’ and drum ‘n’ bass when he performs with his band ‘Nerve’. He has a great respect for technique and dynamics but just as much respect for the tonal values of his instrument.
His DVD, ‘Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer’, is currently one of the biggest chart sellers in the drum DVD market and is a great testimonial to his contribution to the drumming community.
I caught up with Jo Jo Mayer during his recent U.K. clinic tour with Geoff Dunn and winner of ‘Young Drummer of the Year 2008’ George Barnett to get an inside perspective on his DVD and get closer to his creativity.
Congratulations on an excellent DVD. With so many drum DVD’s around, what was the purpose of creating ‘Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer’?
The main purpose was that I wanted to present an instructional video within the true meaning of an instructional DVD. I wasn’t going to do an introduction of myself or what I can do. This video is not about me, it’s about ‘them’, it’s about the people that buy it and about helping drummers push their boundaries through understanding technique so that’s where the focus of where the DVD is.
With pretty much any other instrument like the trumpet, piano or the violin, there have been libraries of methods with the physical nature of that instrument but not really with drums ‘cause there is so much mystery and misunderstanding when it comes to technique. I just wanted to compile and structure all the knowledge that I acquired over the past 20 years to take some of the mystery out of drumming technique, and pass on some of things I got from other people and then mix it up with my own ideology and philosophy. So I see it more as a philosophical essay on the mechanics and the workings of physics in drumming. To put it simply, it’s not about playing fast, quicker, louder or powerful; it’s simply understanding why those things work and it elevates you to that plain of awareness that every instrumentalist has and, in the case of this particular DVD, it’s with drums.
It was also my intention to format the DVD to create a reference guide you can come back to again and again. You can look at this like a course or a method but it’s more than that, which is what the ‘killer’ application of the DVD is. You can jump in between chapters as you can do in a booklet where you can flick from Chapter 19 back to Chapter 3 and then onward to Chapter 17 and if you bi-pass a chapter that came prior to that you can come back to it at a later stage; that’s the beauty of the facility that a DVD has to offer - it’s like a visual encyclopaedia. It doesn’t matter where you start ‘cause you can ‘chomp’ into any of the chapters and go forward or backwards in the progressive content of the DVD and it really doesn’t matter that you have to master the presentations from previous chapters in order to move on.
What I also want people to do is to put their minds to it and try to generate questions to find the answers ‘cause I’m not a technique snob and I don’t want people to misunderstand I’m really not a technique guru.
I’m not a technique snob and I don’t want people to misunderstand I’m really not a technique guru.
Can you explain your perspective on the usage of technique?
I have to explain that technique has its place; it’s not a means to an end in the big picture because there are many other aspects of drumming that are just as important; technique is just a tool. Hopefully, the DVD will give drummers a little more insight and clarity to make people realise ‘OK, this is something that I can do’ ‘cause it is not wizardry and it’s not magic. This is based on certain principles and if you understand them it will open doors to more effortless execution to the instrument which is basically what we’re looking for. I’m trying to give people a tool so they are able to express themselves more easily and they don’t have to struggle with technical limitations. With these techniques they will ultimately be able to control their dynamics, groove and shape the feel of the music to give it the best expression.
You’ve used the term ‘reverse engineering’ in your drum clinics, can you explain the concept?
Well the term ‘reverse engineering’, in the context of what I do with my band ‘Nerve’, comes from industrial espionage! (laughs). It’s copying something without violating a copyright infringement.
So let’s say for example, Mercedes puts out a car and the competitor BMW wants to put out a similar thing because basically they think it’s a good idea. So they establish two teams. One team takes the part of the Mercedes engine and studies it so they understand how it works. The second team doesn’t see the engine so the A team feeds the B team as much information so they can try to create a process that evolves into the same end product but they took a different route.
So ‘reverse engineering’, in what I do with electronic beats, is like that. Every programmer who programs beats is primarily inspired by what the drummer does; there’s still snare drum, there’s still bass drum, there’s still hi-hats, cymbals and all sort of noises. So I creep into their way of thinking and by acquiring their understanding on how to create those new textures; ‘cause programmers aren’t caught up with the technical mastery of playing rhythms, they don’t care! For them it’s not an accomplishment to play a snare drum exercise with double bass drums. They just exchange the snare sound electronically with another sound so they’re in fact freer to communicate in rhythm language and that was for me very, very fascinating.
So I posed the question, ‘with these beats, how can I transfer that back into my instrument?’ Now, I’m not trying to sound like a drum machine, that’s not my purpose. We invented drum machines so we don’t have to do the ‘dirty work’, the machines do the ‘dirty work’ for us (laughs), so it’s just another tool. So with the drum machine beats through ‘reverse engineering’, I use that concept in my playing to embellish the things that the drum machine cannot do.
I think this is the reason why people have been reacting so strongly when I do this because with the drum machine you can relate to it and what’s important is that you communicate the concern. For the past 20 years it’s not been drummers that have introduced new rhythm culture ideas into popular music, and probably the last authentic contribution from drummers that cross pollinated with popular music was a ‘blast beat’; nowadays it’s coming from DJ’s.
So I’m kind of connecting with what’s going on today which is beat culture, samples, drum programming, loops and all those things and I texturally embellish what I do to create the flavour in my playing with the rhythm culture concept.
A lot of drummers have a relationship with technique and technique only. You also have reggae drummers and some street drummers who don’t know about ‘Stick Control’ or, for the most part, don’t even care because they play from the heart; and in order to express themselves and deliver their music they have a solid relationship with their instrument i.e. being sensitive to tones and dynamics.
How do you align having a relationship with your technique with having a relationship with your instrument?
That’s a good question. I’m hoping that everybody who understood my DVD understands that there’s not much fuss about playing a single stroke roll at 140 BPM. It can be done, all you have to do is understand it and practice it and then you move on – take the mystery out of it, it’s just technique.
The way I see it is technique is anything you use to make a sound. Reggae drummers, they also have technique - they have the technique to create that sound, they had to study the tonal responses on their instrument in order for it to have a place in the music they play. There is a misunderstanding when drummers get caught up with speed and stuff and forget about everything else.
Now the way I structure drumming, music or even the arts generally. I divide it into three categories.
The first is the physical aspect – you can say that technique is our body. Our hands, our feet, the way our finger moves, the way our muscle moves. Even the alloy in our cymbals, the wood in our drums and right down to the microphones we use.
The second is the conceptual aspect – which is everything that goes on in our minds, how we structure things, how we make decisions, understanding styles, having your choices, what genre of music we choose to play – these are all conceptual things.
The third is the emotional aspect – how you express yourself, your motivation, what is this reason behind what you do and how and what you’re feeling at that point in time.
Now those three entities have to be in balance.
There are drummers who are frustrated in what they do so they have to dial into the technical facility.
Let’s say you have a drummer who is very proficient in the technical quarter and very proficient in conceptual quarter but not able to inject emotion or express themselves on the instrument. You are going to have a drummer who is capable of doing extraordinary things that only another will be able to appreciate. He is going to be able to impress other drummers and THAT’S IT!
Against that you have a drummer who is technical proficient, who is able to inject an emotional concern behind his instrument but has no concept of what they’re doing. Most likely this drummer is going to become a clone of somebody who’s already out there - he will be able to emulate very well; like copying a Steve Gadd or Joey Jordinson but without their personality.
Now if you have a drummer who is able to emote, wants to say something and has a sense of concept but he hasn’t got the technical ability to execute his message, more than likely that drummer is going to go the furthest. I’m talking about drummers who are limited in the technique quarter like Ringo Starr or Charlie Watts. They are perfect in what they do and I wouldn’t want to mess up by telling them they are doing anything wrong, what they do is perfect!
There are drummers who are frustrated in what they do so they have to dial into the technical facility.
You have to have a good balance of these elements - technique, concept and emotion which create the relationship which comes back to answering your question.
From my perspective, I need an emotional and a conceptual concern to express myself authentically. There is only one Jo Jo Mayer... this world doesn’t need two Vinnie Coliautas or two Chad Smiths; so that’s really the important point to take on board.
I can play in a rock band or play jazz or electronic music; those are conceptual concerns. Now, why I do that is the emotional concern. To bring all those elements together and have them balanced in order to be yourself does take courage but more importantly, the balance of these entities I’ve described will ultimately lead you to having a relationship with your instrument.
There are some drummers who zone into technique for the sake of technique and forget to make the best use when it comes to expressing themselves to make a musical or rhythmic statement.
How do you translate and execute technique?
I can answer this very simply and the answer is to be able to communicate. Focus on communication, which is what a great drummer does and what a great musician does. It doesn’t really matter how many hours you practice and disregarding what you’re able to do whether it’s playing in perfect time with a click track or doing the fancy stuff. It’s not how complicated or how simply you play; the most important thing is that you communicate!! That’s what makes great music timeless. When you listen back to Hendrix, it’s like ‘Wow!’ this communicates like an emotional state of mind and a technical state of mind of that era and that makes it so powerful.
When I go to the studio the first thing I try and find out before I lay anything down, whether it’s my stuff or some other songwriter or composer, is what they’re trying to say with their written piece. I will try and do anything to make this as clear and as strong as possible and then I delve into my ‘weapons’ in order to deliver that.
It’s like when Frank Zappa presents you with a polyrhythm or a written chart, he wants a human being behind the drums who can understand his sense of self irony and his humour in the music. In a funny way you bring rhythm, sound and feel under the microscope and you also want your audience to react to it so you have to produce this from within. It can be tough and even the most experienced of musicians sometimes loose sight of what they need to produce; like they might lay a track down for about 200 takes and end up using the first or second take. All sorts of things happen in the studio because there are many different pressures in the studio like limited studio time so it is tough creating a happy medium.
Open up your sensitivity and communicate with the other musicians, communicate to your listening audience. Sometimes a tambourine is all you need.
I’ve been getting a lot of calls just to play brushes because they love the flavour of what that brings to the palette of sounds for the composer. For me, I enjoy playing with musicians who have an open mind ‘cause they want to create something new and courageous but you don’t always get that.
Another thing is that a lot of people get hung up with perfection. Perfection is a term which, as of a couple of years ago, for me, started to render itself useless. Perfection deteriorates on approach, the closer you get to it the further away it scoots away from you. I tend to exchange term perfection for the term clarity. Aim for clarity not perfection, that’s much more important. If you listen to some old Motown records, those drum parts are far from ‘perfect’ but they ARE ‘perfect’. Just remember we are not machines and we are not supposed to be machines, that’s a misunderstanding
Another thing is that a lot of people get hung up with perfection... Perfection deteriorates on approach, the closer you get to it the further away it scoots away from you
With so much information out there like books, DVD’s, etc. on drum technique and other related elements, where would you place your advice for a young kid or anyone trying to advance their own education to improve?
The future is wide open. First of all, the music business is changing drastically. Don’t look for answers, look for the right questions. Questions, questions, questions! Just keep asking questions. Try and get to the source of whatever helps you improve. Don’t be happy with the first answer you’re given. Go beyond and if you look at my DVD – ask questions! Try and prove it wrong, experience it, make it your own. There is a lot of information out there and you’ll be given a lot of advice too; question that advice so as you get to a point where you are happy with the conclusions you draw.
With all of this, the other most important thing especially for the young drummer is your attitude, mind your attitude – I have to make this clear. Have a good attitude and with having that good attitude, it will translate and express itself into bringing the best out of your own playing and performance. There are guys out there who have phenomenal skills, phenomenal talent and phenomenal vision but they don’t have the right attitude. So they get stuck in a place of being the unaccredited genius and they get bitter and they hate the world and they’re wondering why people aren’t calling them up or doing business with them in spite of them having their incredible skills, talent and vision.
A person with good attitude and perhaps less talent will go further. With that good attitude it will help you overcome crisis that you will face if you’re serious about it. You’ll get knocked over and have to get back up on your feet. The way you feel things and see how you can contribute, these are fundamental in life and fundamental in drumming too. Start giving and not navigate your way to what you can get out of it.
There are two ways of giving love even in music.
For example, there’s a relationship between a baby and its mother. The love from the baby to the mother is an essential need for attention. The love of the mother to the baby is different, it’s unconditional and it’s a natural biological instinct.
So when you give as an artist, give like the mother to the baby not like the needy baby who takes - that’s my attitude. I don’t give to the audience so I earn applause so I can feel better about myself. Give them something unconditionally and they will give it back to you without a doubt.
It’s the same if you work in the studio and the drummer puts in that fancy fill in there and the main reason is that he is insecure and he wants to be applauded for being a good drummer whilst not understanding that he has not really given to the project. It’s a selfish way of giving. The rewards you reap by giving unconditionally are on a much deeper level. This is not just with drumming but with everything in life.
Drum Heads: Remo
Sticks: Vic Firth
For more information: www.jojomayer.com
Interview: Jerome Marcus, www.jeromemarcus.com
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