A couple of months ago, the Long Winters got some mixed news: Our drummer, Nabil Ayers, was taking a full-time job in New York that would preclude his touring, and our band was invited to play Bumbershoot. We cried, we laughed. Happy as we were for our friend, his new direction meant we would have to start searching for a new drummer, a grueling process under the best of circumstances.
Since then, we’ve been auditioning drummers from all walks of drummer life, playing with a dozen different characters in search of a good fit. Throughout the process I’ve clarified my thinking on what we’re looking for and what the job description is. Writing a column about drummers means I’m going to get some angry letters from guys with fingerless gloves, sleeveless Zildjian T-shirts, and tight perms telling me I don’t know anything, but that’s the price of doing business with drummers in the first place.
We’re lucky to be a fairly established band, so most of the folks who showed up to audition were already accomplished players. For the most part, any one of them could have handled the job. The challenge has been to find a person who can bring that extra something, and be someone we’ll want to spend time with. It’s no easy task to join a band that’s been playing together for years. You’re going to be the butt of inside jokes, delegated thankless jobs, and then nitpicked in every city you visit. Act too aloof or eager to please, and you’ll fail to bond with the band or its fans.
Auditioning as many drummers as I have, you learn what to look for. At first I was deeply impressed by anyone who could hold sticks in both hands and play music without a shirt on. I believed that the more actual drums a drummer has, the better a player he must be. This has proven to be false. Certain traits are common among those who choose the drums as their instrument, and these traits often suggest certain personality types.
Our job description reads: “Wanted, person to violently pummel barrels with sticks in constant time while the supposedly ‘creative’ types follow your instructions.” It’s remarkably similar to the job description for Ottoman galley slave-master, and it attracts people with the same disposition.
Drummers with nuance, technique, and feel form a much smaller pool.
Nuanced playing is especially hard to quantify. Why does one musician’s playing just feel better than another’s when they’re both playing the same part? I have marveled at the fact that two drummers can communicate radically different feelings through one hit of a snare drum. I’m not even sure how it’s physically possible, but that’s the trick. Music is an emotional communication, and despite the fact that drums do not carry a melody, they still are profoundly capable of evoking an emotional response. From the band’s standpoint, picking the drummer with the playing style that fits best with us requires that we audition them with all our senses open, an especially draining process when you’re talking about playing with a dozen different prospects.
If there’s one distinguishing characteristic of indie rock, it’s that it is music full of intricacies. What may at first sound like airy-fairy singer-songwriter crap turns out to have a thousand twists and turns, accents on off-beats, phrases of five bars, awkward syncopation, schizophrenic hi-hat parts, and cold stops. Indie rock tries to generate interest and emotional tension through small complexities rather than huge guitars and screaming vocals; when huge guitars or screaming vocals do come into play, they function as accents. Bands like Telekinesis, the Lonely Forest, and Throw Me the Statue build songs out of carefully thought-out parts that are deceptively simple on first listen.
It’s only when you sit down to play indie rock that you discover its molecular construction. Every single drummer we’ve auditioned in the past month has been overconfident in how well they know our material, and their first rehearsal is always a process of learning our distinctive math. For many kinds of bands—say, blues or country—the style of the music is fairly constant from artist to artist, so if you learn the basic concepts you can play with almost any other group in the same vernacular. Indie rock is, if nothing else, music made of bits and parts; so in addition to being able to tie those parts together with a good feel, indie drummers need to be precise, have good memories, and be able to plan ahead. In other words, they need to be nerds.
Then there’s the fact that the best players are not always the right people for the job. In our world, there’s a social premium placed on touring. Touring is where all the great stories come from, where reputations are cultivated, and where any musician who wants to play original material will end up proving their mettle. But most musicians aren’t actually suited to the life. Touring is exhausting, uncomfortable, and lonely even if you’re a massive rock band—but especially if you’re a touring indie band. It doesn’t matter how nice your hotel room is, it’s still a hotel room. A lot of people are homebodies; they want their own pillow, they want to be in a relationship, they want a goodnight kiss from someone whose last name they can remember.
A touring band on the lookout for a new member has to reckon with the fact that an unknowable percentage of applicants only want to tour once in their lives, and then want to go home. Trying to weed out the homebodies can be brutal, not just because you’re going to disappoint people, but also because the musician you like best might end up in that category.
What do you do when the nicest person, the one who plays with the best feel and has the right energy, is also suspiciously attached to his own pillow? You have to pass on them, and that can be hard.
In our case we ended up with something I never expected: three drummers who made the grade. I’ve been agonizing over the decision for a couple of weeks, setting up increasingly difficult initiations to try to wear them down, but all three are stalwart. Meantime, Nabil will fly out to play one last show with us at Bumbershoot, and we’ll choose a new drummer after the break.