|Jim McGrath, Percussionist
Interview by Maireid Sullivan
M: Percussion is only just beginning to come of age as a social activity for western culture, why do you think this is so?
J. McG: It's because urban people feel that they have lost touch with mother nature and their own bodies. Western ideology has been so intellectual. Dance has been so rigidly structured. But contemporary dance and formal and informal drum circles have begun to introduce free expression which is still striving to become less intellectual. The concept of "going with the flow" is an expression of this new found freedom. Drumming is one of the first steps in releasing this pent up energy. Many people are at an age of being reborn culturally, while getting in touch with their roots
M: Why did you become a percussionist?
J. McG: Mostly, it's just to please myself. Because that's what I love to do - play drums and make noise rhythmically. I've always loved to play drums. I've always been fascinated with noise. When ever I see something that is new to me, beyond taking a glance at it, first and foremost I'll hit it to see what it sounds like. I have always been like that - ever since I was a little kid.
M: You're saying that you are sharing your pleasure in making noise in a rhythmic way and you would like people to pick up on that feeling.
J. McG: Oh! definitely. For my first CD, "Percussive Environments", I needed a concept for recording. Back then, it was a hard thing to come up with a concept that was strictly percussion. Part of my concept was to reach the listener on a deeper level, beyond the sonic level.
M: You started playing way back before it became a big social thing. What was your inspiration? Who were your models?
J.McG: When I first started playing I listened to Olatunji, Mongo Santamaria, Santana -- the standards. At that time I played in rock bands, so my only outlet was to incorporate the traditional African and Latin rhythms into a non-traditional format, which led me to mix and blend rhythms to create more of my own sound than a traditional sound.
M: When did you branch out into percussion?
J. McG: In the early 80's, when I was around 21, I started getting into percussion. As a matter of fact, in 1980 I was playing with BonJovi, at the beginning of his career, with his first solo projects. I got axed from those projects mostly because of my looks. I didn't look the part - I was too tall and my hair was short. It was an image thing. From there I was listening to Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel. They were incorporating a lot of percussion. I'd been listening to Bob Marley and started tapping in more to the percussive end of the music as opposed to the drum kit. I went to a drum clinic to see Billy Cobham. He is a jazz/fusion drummer. He played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Return to Forever, with Chick Corea. He is a monster drummer. I think he had three snare drums and three kick drums in his kit. Back then I used to go to see Buddy Rich, Carmine Appice, Simon Phillips and Bill Bruford. But at this particular clinic they had another clinician opening up, Glen Weber, who ran the New Jersey School of Percussion. That was my first exposure to percussion. He played Congas, Bongos, Timbalis, Cuica and a bunch of little toys. I was very, very intrigued and very excited about it. This was something I had never been exposed to. He had an ensemble of percussionists with him and they played Latin and African rhythms. I grew up in an all-white suburb of New Jersey and I had never seen this before. I was mesmerized because he was taking little instruments that I had never heard before and some that I had heard on records but had never seen. Yet, I heard the sound and thought that is how they did that. Here is this guy making noise in a rhythmic way, which is what I always wanted to do. After being axed from the BonJovi project I was looking in the papers and there were tons of drummers available but there were no percussionists available. I was intrigued by that. The day after I went to that clinic I went to see Santana and they had the most awesome rhythm section. It was on that day that I said "that's what I want to do."
I was very excited. I went out and bought a Conga and I studied with Glen Weber for a little bit. I started playing around town in some bands. Moving to hands-on-skin was totally different. It really helped me get deep inside myself. Playing a drum-kit first is really a completely backward approach to drumming. Having all your limbs doing something completely different is a very complex thing. The drum set is designed to sound like an ensemble of hand percussionists. It was originally called the "Trap-set". The idea that they kept adding to the collection of percussive sounds to create a "contraption". So, going from the drum-kit/ensemble sound to a single drum, getting to know and feel that drum, really effects your body. The resonance of the drum reverberates through your body and concentrating on one sound creates a trance-like effect. When I first started playing drum-kit I did exercises - buzz-rolls - on a rubber drum pad with metal sticks just to build up my muscles in my hands and wrists and arms and I would do this for half an hour to forty five minutes at a time. This is how I first started getting into a meditative state. I remember the first time I felt that I was a little person inside this big body looking out through my eyes, as if I were inside a control tower -- my head -- watching these hands moving and that I was controlling it from this little point inside my head. I went from that to the out-of-body experience where I was above myself looking down as I played.
M: What were the highlights of this transition.
J.McG: I remember it was very hard to make the transition from drum-kit to hands on playing. When I first started doing it I used to bang on them and really beat the shit out of my hands. I had no technique. My first lessons showed me how to make the "pop" sounds, the "slap" sounds, all those basic sounds, without hurting myself. Although there is a period where you get some really nasty blisters which can be very painful. It took a little time and for the most part it was hard work. It takes time to relax yourself. The hardest thing to do, and it took me years to do it, is to relax. Coming from being a "straight-ahead" rock-n-roll drummer playing loud, heavy music for a long time, that was my energy -- that was the way I played, and taking that into percussion was exciting. It was exciting to be a heavy percussionist as well. The dancers enjoyed that. But it takes a toll on your hands and it took a toll on my kidneys, too. I got to a point where I really wanted to play percussion and there were a lot of instruments to learn. So, I just had to stop playing the drum-kit in rock bands. I told people that I didn't play the Drum-kit anymore, I play percussion. Back in New Jersey there were no other percussionists, that I knew. There were no ensembles, no drum circles, the only opportunity to play was with rock bands.
So, I moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and I played percussion with everybody I found. Back then the folk scene was having a revival, and the acoustic music movement was developing, so I got a lot of those gigs. That's when I developed the nuances of soft playing and explored the dynamics of the sounds.
M: Tell us about "Barney".
J.McG: Barney is the first drum that I made. It was one of the nastiest experiences I ever had. I bought a book called "How To Make Drums, Rattles and Tomtoms". And, it suggested going to a local slaughter house where you can get fresh hides because, the book said, that's the best thing, you don't want to get anything that is chemically treated. So, we went down town, Los Angeles, to Vernon, to this section where they had this open warehouse that just had stacks of pallets loaded with fresh hides that were dripping blood. We walked through there and it was the most awful smell that I've ever smelled in my life, flys everywhere, my feet were sticking to the bloody cement floor. They asked us which one we wanted so we had the pleasure of sorting through some nasty hides to pick out the one we wanted. We brought it back home and soaked it. Before we could put it on the frame we had to scrape the flesh off the inside of the hide, its what they call "fleshing", and that was a regular treat. Then we stretched the hide and we had to put Nair, a chemical hair remover, on the outside to take the hair off. I took the hair off one side only so that we could get two different sounds. And that's it, my favorite drum. It sounds great, it is an excellent low sounding drum. I use it on all my recordings for getting the super low end sound. We named it "Barney" because it smells like it should be in a barn. Since making it, I have found a place in Florida where I can get all my hides shipped to me through the mail, totally clean, totally without scent. Its a much easier way of working!
M: You have seen music evolve from 70's rock-n-roll through the 80's revival of acoustic/unplugged music and the 90's emergence of a new "tribal" music movement -- where drum circles began to become important for amateur players and professionals alike? Why and how did you get involved in that?
J. McG: This reflects a very basic thing that is in everybody: Everybody loves to bang on something. This is the approach I take to my own recordings. In my first recording, "Percussive Environments", I did not want to do something that was traditional. I didn't want to do a dance record which would have been the obvious direction to take with percussion. I thought hard and decided that I wanted to do something for myself, something outside the major record company trends. At that time I was practicing for hours at a time and really getting into a meditative state. I found I could alter my state almost instantly through drumming. So, I thought it would be a good to do some long pieces in hopes that the person listening could get into the same state. I wanted to see people dancing, playing along and listening to the rhythms. Just listening to the rhythms will get you there. It still gets me there.
M: What do you think people achieve in listening to your recordings?
J. McG: I think, in a sense, its a grounding influence. It brings you right into yourself and it brings you out of yourself, at the same time. When you really listen to a rhythm you can feel it going through your whole body. Resounding tones will vibrate certain parts of your body and sometimes you will feel your heartbeat pulsing in time with the rhythm; an entrainment.
M: Lets get back to your concept for your recordings.
J. McG: Part of the concept was to do long pieces; to inspire the listener to get into an altered state through the rhythm. Secondly, everybody is moved by the primal nature of the drum and everybody I've ever known, whether they can carry a tune or not, when they hear a song they like, they sing or whistle or hum along with it. I recognized rhythm and voice to be the two most primal elements at the foundation of music. And everybody relates to that on a very basic primal level. For my first recording, "Percussive Environments", I was inspired by Brian Eno. I had always admired what he had done with his ambient music. That was an inspiration for me. He was making music that was as listen-able-to as it was ignorable. If you listen to it, there is stuff going on that you can grab on to and respond to, enjoy or analyze. Yet, if you don't want to listen to it, it's great background music, great ambient music. And, he is the king of ambient music. He started the trend before anyone else. That also inspired the title "Percussive Environments". I wanted to create an environment; it is great background music, it creates a mood or you can listen to it and go deep into it. This is what I have done with my second recording, "Drum Spirit" and with my latest recording, "Soul Dancer"
M: Tell us more about your experience with drum circles.
J.McG: Its pretty exciting to see people react to drumming and react to each other. Drum circles are proliferating. I am just guessing, but I think it all started with Micky Hart and the Greatful Dead concerts. Drum circles are mainly made up of amateur players. But, if you hang in long enough, it will get to a point where everything locks in to the rhythm. It always happens. Its the law of entrainment, where it takes less energy for more forms of energy to perform the same task at the same time than to go against each other. I read that if you have a room full of clocks with swinging pendulums, over a period of time, they will all start swinging together. Say you are at a football game and everybody is clapping. At some point, without any individual initiating it or starting it, everybody will be clapping together. They are all playing that same rhythm and there is that power that you feel running through your body. That's what happens at drum circles. When you get a group of 5, 10, 20 or so people banging on things and even if they know nothing about what they are doing, in terms of precision drumming, at some point they are all going to lock in and they are all going to groove. I've seen it happen with preschool kids. You can give them all percussive instruments and let them go and in a short time they will all be playing together. It is one of the laws of nature.
M: What does this new-found popularity that drumming is experiencing do for you?
J.McG: It's pretty darned exciting. I feel lucky that I have chosen the path of banging on things to make a living. Its all fallen my way and its a great thing. I am coming from the standpoint of doing what I like to do and trying not to think about it too much. Too much thought takes a lot away from me. It is just a very basic pleasure. When I approached music from an intellectual standpoint it was not that enjoyable for me. I realized that when I let that intellectual part go, and just played from what I felt really grounded me, I was able to get into a better state, a happier state, a meditative state. I felt more complete about what I was doing. There was always a tension around being precise and not letting go. I used to aspire to be an articulate, proficient drummer and I looked up to the drummers that did that. But, when I saw these drummers play live, I realized that the whole time they are playing they are thinking about every single note they are playing and not necessarily feeling every note. Once I discovered what it really feels like to play there was no comparison. For example, if your having sex, you don't want to be reading a book about how to do it while you are doing it. That would be very awkward and quite a different thing than if you just did it. That's how I felt about reading charts while playing. Complete feeling gives a more true sense of being. In certain tribes in Africa the doctors are drummers. They hold drum sessions and dancing sessions and they see, by the way a person dances, if there is something not right. They can often tell what it is that is not right with them and they will go up to them and drum directly to them and intensify the drumming to make them move and dance the illness out of them.
M: Tell us about your workshops?
J.McG: I have played for healing, meditation and movement seminars where everyone would go for ten hours a day over three days. There would be anywhere from 20 to 50 people in the group and we would begin with ambient percussion and go on to intense movement over a long period of time where people would have time to really let go.
This experience totally changed the way I thought of myself and being a drummer. I realized the power of drumming and where it came from. Drumming is an integral part of life for many cultures and is used to connect, heal, travel, celebrate, mourn and communicate. Before these workshops, I had never experienced the energy of a group of people feeding off the energy of a couple of drummers who, in turn, are feeding off the group of people. The dynamic is incredible and shows how powerful we are and how tuned in we can be. Drumming is not just for performing and entertaining.
I did my CD's to reach people and get people to experience what I was feeling from playing.
Jim McGrath is based in Los Angeles where he records with a wide variety of artists and for film and Television soundtracks. For information regarding availability of his recordings, "Percussive Environments", "Drum Spirit", and his latest release "Soul Dancer" contact:
Talking Drum Records 1223 Wilshire Blvd. #503 Santa Monica, CA 90403
Phone: 310 396 6941 Fax: 310 396 3941 EMail: firstname.lastname@example.org