few weeks ago, I received my first piece of reader e-mail in my brief time writing for Stylus. It was a brief message from Chicago tabletop guitar improviser and electronic experimentalist Kevin Drumm thanking me for a review of his fantastically heavy new album, Sheer Hellish Miasma. I was ecstatic for reasons that went well beyond tangible proof that someone actually read my reviews. When I consider the “landmark albums” in my development as a musician and a listener, Kevin Drumm's self-titled album on Perdition Plastics immediately springs toward the top of my mental all-time-top-ten list. Since my first listens sometime at the beginning of my freshman year of college to my headphones at this very minute, my countless spins of Drumm's solo guitar debut captivate me in a way that no improv record had before and very few have since. Whereas most of the improvised music I had heard previously retained some scrap of the audible character of its source instruments, Kevin Drumm's take on the electric guitar sounded like a fractured series of scrambled transmissions from the moon. It's a stream of sputters, crackles, and clangs that prick the ear like metal splinters in a blanket of tape hum riddled with patches of uneasy silence – a demonstration of sonic potential whose origins still remain mysterious to me after years of my own personal attempts at similar guitar abuse. My ears were changed forever – music that once seemed strange began to make perfect sense and new doors of musical possibility were thrown irreversibly open.
In my reply to Kevin, I proposed an e-mail interview under the guise of “official business” here at Stylus, but I was admittedly more interested in piecing together my personal picture of the man whose guitar flickers and electronic rumbles have so enthralled me. Ordinarily a little reticent in interviews, Kevin surprised me with the volume and depth of his answers – but I was certainly unsurprised by his approachability, abundant humor, and decidedly down-to-earth perspective on the generally stuffy kingdom of so-called “experimental” music. For those that know Kevin Drumm, there's plenty of information about Sheer Hellish Miasma, his recent tour with fellow Chicago residents Tortoise, and his other recent projects with Ralf Wehowsky and Keith Rowe's Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra (MIMEO), as well as a fascinating look into Drumm's early improv days. For those that don't know about Drumm or his music, there's a genuinely funny and accessible look into the sometimes-alienating realm of improv and noise courtesy of one its most unpretentious proponents. And for either camp, there's just something intrinsically appealing about a guy who can bring up Don Rickles, Dio, and a muted duck fart in the same interview. Enjoy!
Joe Panzner (STYLUS): For those who aren't familiar with you, could you give a brief history of Kevin Drumm? When did you start playing guitar in general, and what sort of music did you play? When and why did you start playing tabletop guitar?
Kevin Drumm (KD): I took guitar lessons for a year when I was 9, I quit when I was 10 then picked it up again when I was 13. I stopped again when I was 15 and picked it up once again when I was 17. I was really into metal at first, like Iron Maiden, Rush, Saxon, Motorhead, Rainbow – then all my friends liked REM, so I started listening to that too. When I was 17, I bought an electric guitar, played with some friends, tried a few short-lived high school bands, but it totally sucked because I sucked. So I started to practice and even though I hated it, and saw no reason to do it, I did it anyway and at the same time I was goofing around with the guitar making noises by laying it down and screwing around with the pickups and twiddling the knobs on the amp, etc. I had no info about this kind of music at the time, I didn't think there was this kind of music or that it was music. I had a few Merzbow records but somehow I thought that was totally a different world. I found a copy of Black Axis by Caspar Brotzmann and said, "Yeah, this is cool," so I started looking for more of this kind of thing. I didn't find anything like it until I found a copy of Borbeto Jam. I had heard about Borbetomagus but never heard them. I loved playing that record, even though I didn't totally like it. I liked the guitar playing, though. So I started seeking out this kind of shit and shortly afterwards I met Weasel Walter of the Flying Luttenbachers, who was at the time a young hungry-as-hell percussionist who had much more knowledge about this stuff than me. We started jamming together occasionally, watching TV, listening to records, buying records. We also formed a group called Ectomorph in 1992 with Ken Vandermark and Jeb Bishop. We played a couple of times a month in my apartment and at this time I became immersed in the whole FMP catalog. It was a funny because I was buying FMP records and really getting into it, while Weasel Walter had been there and done that and was starting to get into death metal. I played him Deicide and Celtic Frost for the first time. Anyways, I was really getting into the sounds I was getting out of my guitar, though I was still practicing my scales for some reason. My roommates thought I was retarded, but I didn't care and I spent just about every penny on records of this ilk. It's weird, and I sometimes wish I wasn't so impressionable at that time or that I had stumbled across something else instead of this improv goop. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret it, I just wonder sometimes if someone back then would have played me Hello Dummy and I received the same “stir,” what would I be like now? (Cuz at that time, man, I was just blowing with the wind.)
Then Ken Vandermark started organizing concerts and I, scared shitless, agreed to play one. Afterwards, no one threw shit at me and a few folks told me it was really cool. Plus, I liked it and that's all there is to it.
Then I was starting to get into some post-industrial crud and was thinking how interesting it was and started pulling influences from that. All experimental music I heard up until this point was mainly improv. Stuff like P16.D4, Hafler Trio were working with tape and cutting sounds left and right, fucking with peoples' expectations (or at least mine). So I kept playing and kind of came up with a system or whatever you want to call it. It wasn't intellectual or anything, but I was into this “fucking with expectations” business I just mentioned. I used the pickup on/off toggles on my Fender Mustang as my splicer (if you will) and would bang on the guitar, turn it off, place some piece of metal on the pickup and turn it back on. Voila! Different sound in a split second. Turn the pickup off again, jam the electric fan over the strings, turn the pick up on again and... holy crap, it's an ethereal drone. Turn the other pick up on that has the metal plate on it and now the drone sounds like shit. Exciting! I didn't get out enough, that's for sure, but no regrets, I guess. Sorry, I'm rambling. Oh, and I'm 32 and I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. Tentatively living on the north side of Chicago.
Stylus: Did you know of any tabletop guitar players before you experimented with those techniques?
KD: Just Donald Miller. Later I finally heard Keith Rowe and Fred Frith. But they had only a small influence. Donald Miller had a bigger one on me I think because he was first, I suppose. I liked experimental guitar but never looked toward it for inspiration. I was really into Caspar Brotzmann's guitar playing, D. Boon, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Slayer solos and Tom G. Warrior but I didn't let that creep in either. Not even when I played standing up, with pick in hand and fingers placed properly on the neck. New Blockader's Changez les Blockeurs, Merzbow, P16.D4 was where I was coming from on the tabletop guitar, sonically at least.
Stylus: What sort of guitar preparations do you use?
KD: The usual – clips, bows, fans, metal plates, magnets.
Stylus: Your "falling out" with improvised music was pretty well documented a few years back -- and often misinterpreted or badly portrayed. Have you become any more comfortable with improvised music in recent years? How often do you play improvised gigs these days?
KD: Improv is okay. I still do it. I don't get together with everybody with a horn and start jamming anymore. My interests have changed and I don't really enjoy playing with saxophonists or jazz musicians. I stick out like a sore thumb in these contexts. It seems part of the appeal to have me in a group situation-- to stick out like a sore thumb. I'm not really into that. In fact, I can't figure out why some musicians want to play with me if they're just going to do their thing all over mine. I used to adopt the "listen, don't force anything and don't play when you have nothing to contribute." That was absolutely paramount for me, that's what I thought was supposed to be absolutely paramount to the improviser. Now I say, “Phooey to that, I've had my fill of trying to do that.” Now I don't listen, it works out so much better. Don't really like playing with computerists either. A few of them are really good but play fine without me so there is no need. Not really keen on playing with folks whose sound palette is akin to mine, either. I'm looking for new contexts these days. But I still jam every now and then with whoever. I'm part of Ken Vandermark's Territory band. That is a weird band. I don't know how I fit in it, but it's Ken's vision and I respect that. Plus it's all notated (in my case, it's graphic notation) so I'm not 100% responsible if it doesn't work. Ha! Seriously though, it's fun to play in a big band for some reason. No, I have no major hang-up with improv.
Stylus: In another interview you suggested that the solution to fixing improvised music's financial/politic/social problems was to keep improvised music on the level of the Myopic Bookstore Workshop... Could you talk about what Myopic was and why it worked so well?
KD: Well, those definitely aren't my words but I remember someone posing a similar question. I think what I was getting at there was a bit cynical – mind you, I have no problem with that. Places like Myopic, it was mostly other improv'ers (or in other words "experts”) attending. No one else knew about Myopic really and those who did, and were not into it stayed far, far away. And I know why and understood completely. I kind of thought it was elitist music, not in the sense that it's better than any other form or that “we're better than you”... Just more like “let's face it, this shit is indulgent, but we like it.” And why advertise and get people to come when, in their right mind, they probably don't want to watch someone play a guitar like a newborn chimp would or listen to a saxophonist sound like a duck being castrated? We knew what we were doing, and as pretentious as it is/was we didn't really care because, at least for me, I don't think there isn't any form of music, art, etc. that isn't pretentious. But calling something pretentious is just a waste of breath. If it's seriously, seriously, SERIOUSLY pretentious – well then okay, but really, we should just start saying, "Holy fucking hell do you believe this shit?!" when it's seriously pretentious instead of saying, “That's pretentious,” cuz that is saying nothing really. But anyways, getting back to Myopic, it's over and done with. Can't really call it successful. It had a nice community element to it for awhile. The same 15 folks would show up, three-quarters of them would leave in 10 minutes and go to the Gold Star bar across the street. Then after the concert the rest of the folks would come by and drink and talk about how it was good or bad or whatever. That was good, I guess.
Stylus: Lately you've also expressed some dissatisfaction with playing live gigs. Is this dissatisfaction related to the fact that your music has moved away from strictly guitar improvisation and into the realms of more "composed-in-the-studio" work? Or are the reasons more directly related to the nature of the performance situation?
KD: I don't know if I was really dissatisfied or if I was just whining about.... nothing, really. I like the studio because of the control you have. I like live playing because of the potential for the “unexpected” to happen (of course, you can get that in the studio too). That doesn't always happen. Playing live by myself – sometimes I script it out or I just wing it, or do a little of both, trying to find some sort of balance. Sometimes I've followed the script and in the end it was just a bore, sometimes I wing it and it's half-assed or not interesting. And sometimes with a group it becomes paint-by-numbers improv - you know, “a little ebb and flow, some space, some density, some solo.” No one knows when to end it, so they pretend they're concentrating but they're peeking through the corner of their eye to see if the rest of the band looks finished. Then the crowd has about all they can stand of the indecision on stage so they start clapping and the band feigns this look of surprise that says: “Oh, I didn't know we were finished yet.” Also, I have an issue with getting up in front of audiences, especially at a rock venue, and twiddling my knobs. I think this issue is bullshit, but I can't get it out of my head, sometimes it goes away. I have no problem attending a show where someone is up on stage with a computer or a synthesizer or Dr. Sample and Kaos pad, but I see how it quickly turns people off. I don't want to bum people out when I play. I'm not trying to piss people off. It can get really loud or really quiet – either way, I'm not trying to get on anyone's nerves for the sake of it. I want the music sometimes to drive people stir crazy or make them feel uncomfortable, but I'm not trying to be a sadist or anything. I shouldn't even bother to think about these things, but I do sometimes. Now, ideally, I would like to play in a good-sized room with a super PA with nice big subwoofers. If I had access to that on a daily basis, I'd never come home or complain and I'd have no issues whatsoever, nope, nothing but boundless joy!
Stylus: Speaking of "composed-in-the-studio" projects, could you tell us a bit about your new record, Sheer Hellish Miasma? I described the record to one friend as sounding like you guitar records played simultaneously with the organ drones from Comedy -- I think it's an interesting combination of your older and newer pursuits... Is there any truth to that?
KD: There is some truth to that, but it wasn't too conscious. I was talking to a musician the other day and he was going on about how everyone is into doing something different every time. I don't really set out to do that, and I don't really get why anyone is bent on doing something totally different each time they do something. He said to me that all my shit is different and I said, “Bullshit, I totally disagree.” I said it's all the same or similar raw matter, I just place it in different positions. I don't think there is anything wrong with someone doing the same thing over and over again if it's done well. Motorhead does this. Merzbow does this. Sure, it's different each time, but recognizable. I love this. I pretty much have the same shit swimming around in my head, in terms of sound, and gradually things start to shift and that's the way it is for me and I'm comfortable with that. I didn't consciously decide to fuse all my records together with SHM. Or waste any energy with some “reinvent myself” malarkey. I just wanted density. Someone recently told me they didn't really want to hear my new record because when it was described to them they felt that they already heard it. I guess the term 'overblown' threw him off. Anyway, it wasn't overblown for the sake of overblowing. It was a necessary part of getting the sound across the way I wanted it to. Preferably, I would like people to listen to it at a high volume with the lights turned off. Technically, the record is some synthesizer, guitar, organ, piezo scrape, effects pedal jamming – all edited on the computer. There isn't very much DSPing, except for track 2 and 4.
Stylus: When doing some research for my review of Sheer Hellish Miasma, I came across a concert listing from a while back on the Chicago Improv list that advertised "Kevin Drumm presents Sheer Hellish Miasma" -- did the music on the CD originate in the live setting?
KD: No, basically that show was a live version of the tracks “Turning Point” and “Inferno.” “Turning Point” is just a few effects pedals running into a mixer and back out. It didn't sound exactly the same as the record version, but it was close. The live version of “Inferno” was better than the record, I think, except I couldn't do the wailing guitar feedback parts live.
Stylus: As for other recent projects -- You were involved with Keith Rowe's MIMEO project for the Erstwhile disc The Hands of Caravaggio. How did you become involved with the group for that record? Are you officially a member of MIMEO these days, or was it just a one-off sort of affair?
KD: It was just a one-off. Christian Fennesz couldn't make it and he requested me as his replacement. It was interesting. I think the CD is much better than what I remember of the concert. I didn't like the concert - no one seemed to. It was hard to sit there and play and get an idea of how everything was sounding because we were spread out so far apart. Yeah, that group is a mess and I'm not a member.
Stylus: Another interesting project you've been involved in was your Cases album with Ralf Wehowsky, who took fragments of your playing and composed them into new works of musique concrete. How did you meet up with Ralf for the project?
KD: I've been an admirer of Ralf or RLW's music for quite a few years. P16.D4's (Ralf's 80s group) Acrid Acme was an important thing to hear for me. I emailed him once and he responded saying that he liked my first record quite a bit and suggested a collaboration. So I sent him some guitar jams and some “composed” stuff (the first eight minutes of Cases – he didn't touch very much). He made 2 pieces and sent them to me, I made some suggestions which he liked and some he didn't and we came to an agreement. (The CD states he is responsible for the composition, which isn't totally accurate, though he did the bulk of it.)
Stylus: David Grubbs was in The Wire recently, and he made a remark about Chicago that I found very interesting. He said that what he liked about Chicago, unlike more "sectarian" scenes like New York, is that improvisers or other "outer fringe" sort of musicians can be found sharing the bill with more experimental rock bands since there is significant overlap between the scenes. It reminded me of your recent tour with Tortoise -- how did that come to be?
KD: I got the opening slot with Tortoise because one person is less than three or four which usually makes up a band and they knew I was cheap. That and I've known some of them for a little while and we've gotten along pretty well.
Stylus: Were you well received by a more "rock" audience outside of Chicago?
KD: It was mainly polite indifference. Majority of the shows my name wasn't listed on the posters, and the shows would be listed starting at 9:00 and I wouldn't go on until 9:30. The lights would go down and people would cheer expecting Tortoise, then I would walk out on stage. The audience assumed I was a technician or something. It's a funny feeling, I recommend trying it... once. But not every show was like that. Berlin was nice because the crowd was divided - boos and cheers in abundance. I choked quite a bit on that tour, but overall it was a good experience.
Stylus: Do you agree with David Grubbs?
KD: Maybe. I suppose if I moved to another city, which I will do sometime soon, I might miss the pseudo-eclecticism of the avant-band/avant-improv bill that occasionally happens here. There's a lot of stuff going on in Chicago but it has such a one-horse-town kind of ambiance. I like it a lot sometimes, and I don't like it at all sometimes. I know people in rock bands who play a lot in town, they don't like my stuff, I don't like theirs but we don't really care about that, we are friends and occasionally in the past a double bill would happen. But I'm not so wild about that anymore – the variety aspect doesn't appeal to me. Plus it's never really THAT different. Okay, getting David Grubbs to share a bill with Frank Yankiwiecz and Usurper – that's different, but most of the time the variety isn't all that different. Maybe I'm taking it for granted though. I'll have to leave and find out.
Stylus: One of the things I particularly like about your work is the sort of humor that runs through it -- it's a trait that's too rare in this sort of supposedly serious music. I've always found it to be a sort of humor that supplements the music rather than undermining it -- a common pitfall whenever improvisers/etc try to be funny -- and based in a consistent effort to foil expectations. How much conscious effort to you put in to keeping the music "humorous" (for lack of a better word)?
KD: I don't put a conscious effort into it. I'm just a really fucking funny guy, I guess. If I'm not funny, I'm really pissy or glum. Sheer Hellish Miasma is a funny title, and it may seem ironic but it's autobiographical - you should check out my room. I could go on and on about why I called another record of mine Comedy but it's convoluted and not very interesting. I'm glad to hear that the humor aspect supplements and doesn't undermine. Have you checked out TV Pow? They're like the Scatterbrain of bleep-blop with their song titles.
Stylus: What have you been working on lately?
KD: Nothing really. Well, I finished two things just after Sheer Hellish Miasma came out. It makes SHM sound like a muted duck fart from three blocks away. Just did it for fun. I want to crank it on big speakers though, all I have are these three hundred dollar Bose's, I've gotta walk around my room to find the bass, it's ridiculous.
Stylus: Any releases coming up that we should be looking for?
KD: Did a live concert in Oslo last year with Lasse Marhaug, and Smalltown Supersound is putting it out as part of their live series. Gonna maybe do a cassette with Aaron Dilloway from Wolf Eyes. Other than that I don't have anything planned.
Stylus: What musician that you haven't worked with would you most like to collaborate with in the future?
KD: Well I saw Tom Smith (To Live and Shave in LA) a month ago, and we were talking about trying a collaboration, sending stuff back and forth in the mail. I'm quite excited about trying that. I don't think it's feasible, but I would like to try something with a band like Havohej or Electric Wizard. Who knows? If I looked at it on paper and said, "Gosh, what the fuck would that be like?" then I'd be into trying it.
Stylus: What are the last five records you've listened to?
KD: I shit you not:
Dio - The Last in Line
Exumer - Possessed by Fire
Nifelheim – Devil's Force
Mercyful Fate – Don't Break the Oath
Phillip Quehenberger - QBBQ
Kevin would like to thank owner Joe Judd and all the people at Myopic Books for allowing the Improvised Music Workshop to continue for so many years. Myopic Books has recently revived the Experimental Music series under the direction of Chicago's Holler Records.
Kevin Drumm: Selected Discography
As a Solo Artist:
S/T – CD (Perdition Plastics) 1996, LP (Moikai) winter 2002
Second – CD (Perdition Plastics) 1997 (OOP)
Comedy – CD (Moikai) 2000
Sheer Hellish Miasma – CD (Mego) 2002
In Collaboration / One-Offs:
Kevin Drumm/Martin Tetreault – Particles and Smears – CD (Erstwhile) 1999
Kevin Drumm/Taku Sugimoto – Duo – CD (Meme) 1998
Kevin Drumm/Taku Sugimoto – Den – CD (Sonoris) 2000
Kevin Drumm/Axel Dorner – Kevin Drumm/Axel Dorner – CD (Erstwhile) 2001
Kevin Drumm/Ralf Wehowsky – Cases – CD (Selektion) 2001
Kevin Drumm/Lasse Marhaug – Frozen by Blizzard Winds – CD (Smalltown Supersound) 2002
By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2003-09-01