Interviews: Kevin Drumm
By Andy Bet
February 1, 2003
This Kevin Drumm is old. Not the man himself, but this interview. I started communicating with Kevin Drumm after hearing the curiously strong CD Guitar back in 1999, prospectively for the experimental ND Magazine which I was writing for at the time. The feature even had an introduction that read, in part: "Besides providing the murderous thacks and ethereal scrapings on this disc, Drumm shaped and exerted control over the most peripheral of hums and guitar pops, placing every sound, however inchoate or unplanned, into what surely must be its preordained space. Crunchy, vibrant, violent, or still and settled, Drumm could will the tabletop into whatever soundshape needed."
But it was all downhill from there: the new issue never came out, and the interview sat for five years, only recently being dusted off again, on the strength of Drumm's mind-searing 2002 Mego release Sheer Hellish Miasma. Our discussions continued unabated, and we came to talk about new projects, his now-just-released follow-up Land of Lurches, and his love for Chicago and Pete Townshend. But even that version was intended for another webzine that has since fallen by the wayside. Will this Kevin Drumm interview snake bite yet another independent publication, this time the mighty Pitchfork Media empire itself? Time shall tell...
Pitchfork: What brought you to the guitar?
Kevin: There were a few lessons in third grade, but I didn't pick it up again until I was seventeen. I've liked music since I can remember and the guitar was always the most attractive thing about music to me at that time. I played guitar in a high school band. We used to play in this mobile unit behind my old grammar school, trying to write songs, but we weren't very good. I played guitar in various other bands up until I was 20, but nothing too serious. From time to time someone would ask me to play with a group, but I stopped playing with band-oriented projects as a whole soon after. Even back then I really didn't enjoy playing chord changes, riffs, and solos. The only thing I enjoyed playing were these Robert Fripp-type double-picked loops that no one wanted to hear, including me; I just liked playing them.
It's weird-- I can listen to a guitar player or a rock record over and over again and really enjoy whatever the guitarist is doing. But when I do it, after 30 seconds or so I get really frustrated and can't understand why I, or anyone else, would want to write songs. I can put on, say, a Minutemen record or a Deicide record and I'll want to play those kinds of things, but as soon as I pick up the guitar, forget it.
Pitchfork: Do you think it has anything to do with the "record" mystique? That, just as a song can lose its juice once you realize what the lyrics are actually saying, a similar dynamic occurs with learning the guitar parts?
Kevin: For some reason, I deliberately allow for simple things like three chords to mystify me. It's kind of fun that way. Like Billy Gibbons' guitar sound isn't the way it is because he uses a quarter as a pick or anything as simple as that; it's because he's in touch with a different sector of the cosmos that we know nothing about.
Pitchfork: What first made the guitar attractive to you as a kid? Was it more image-derived, from concerts and the radio, or was it the sound itself?
Kevin: As a kid, image played a huge part. I'm sure most kids find the image of the guitarist exciting. With KISS, as a first grader, it was purely the image of Ace Frehley that appealed to me. I didn't care too much about their songs. However, I was equally intrigued by both [Iron Maiden guitarists] Dave Murray and Adrian Smith's images as I was their playing styles, and I was more interested in [Rush guitarist] Alex Lifeson's sound than his stage persona or what his favorite color or string gauge might be. These things varied, as you can tell.
Pitchfork: So why did you opt for the tabletop approach to the guitar?
Kevin: For me, the tabletop is an easy way to eliminate the possibilities of chords, modes, melodies, and harmonies. It kind of confines you to this other sound sphere. I know anyone facing this kind of dilemma could always just find another instrument more suitable to their needs, such as a sampler or synthesizer, but I figured I have a guitar and amp so why not just use them?
I'm often a firm believer in "the simpler the better" approach and it's evident in my guitar setup. I have no interest in getting a rig that might clean up my sound or a delay pedal that might allow me to arpeggiate something bouncing off a string, and I don't plan on ever getting the grounding fixed on my guitar. I really like raw sounds.
kevin drumm & shattered hymen duo at enemy (chicago) june 27th, 2009 from acid marshmallow on Vimeo.
At a certain point, I started playing improvised music. After a couple of years of this, I did a little bit of analysis and found most improvised music (the kind I was listening to at least, which was mainly European) to be as, if not more, formulaic than any other kind of music. For example, improvised pieces would often begin and end in the same way. Certain sounds would bring about the same responses from members of the group; it was a bit too reactive for my liking.
That compelled me, I guess, to take this "unconventional" approach a step further and make some attempt at developing my own language. I can't say I gave the genre a full-body cavity search, but unconventional guitar, with a few exceptions, never really took me by surprise. It never fucked shit up, so to speak. Mostly, it was this linear music that I didn't always have a taste for.
Pitchfork: In devising this 'musical language,' what did you want it to include or exclude?
Kevin: Trivial sounds like the sound of a 60 cycle hum coming from poor wiring in the wall, or playing the static from the amp with the tone knobs or EQ are of much more interest to me than, say, making the guitar sound like a church bell or gong. I like to allow accidents to happen, not to force them, and yet not let myself feel miserable if they do happen, because they are so often the best things.
My Second record was a bit different. It consisted of organ, guitar, accordion, electronics, four-track recordings, and other such debris. It took about 14 months of listening over and over again, changing things, adding and subtracting sounds. I really didn't know what to think of it. I was pleased with it when I finished it, but I just didn't know how people would take it. It was in my head for way too long, I think.
Pitchfork: Describe your setup for a live performance. Have you expanded your equipment to encompass more sound opportunities?
Kevin: My setup lately has been just guitar and synthesizer. Sometimes I only bring one. The guitar is in pretty bad shape and isn't sounding the same. Most of the time my live approach has been pretty different from recording.
Pitchfork: Is it true you use a computer for compositions now?
Kevin: I only use the computer for editing. I don't have an eight-track, otherwise I probably never would have bought a computer. When I first got my Mac, I was exploring its possibilities and had fun with all of the sound hacking software, but I'm not interested in that approach. I toyed with the idea of releasing a 12-inch of all the stuff I did early on but good sense prevented me from doing so. It just lacked character. However, there is one track I did for the OR Computer Music series, "Feelin' Hilarious", which was meant to be funny. Of course, it probably didn't come across as anything hilarious, but...
Pitchfork: The pros and cons of using a computer live?
Kevin: Pros, computers can do a lot. Cons, they can also crash. Lately things seem to stop working for mysterious reasons. In Poland, a month or so ago, the power supply on my synthesizer died for no reason an hour before the concert. Then just last week I was supposed to play at the Empty Bottle and my audio out died as I was trying to do soundcheck.
But even on guitars I've had misfortunes. I never used to clip the strings on my guitar (an Epiphone Sheraton semi-hollow body) and then one day I accidentally poked my right eye with the E-string.
My eye just wouldn't stop tearing up and I could barely keep it open. The doctor said I didn't do any major damage, but I had to wear a patch for a little while. I still have a tiny red mark on my eyeball from it; I'm still not sure it's the same.
Then the pickups on my Mustang (my main tabletop guitar) got smashed in when I checked it in at the airport. That wasn't too surprising-- it was in a gig bag and all. I think these all might be signs to hang it up. Thankfully, a friend of mine sold me his extra souped-up computer for dirt cheap the other day. I haven't spilled coffee on it yet, but there's still time.
Pitchfork: What sort of music still has a surprise for you?
Kevin: The latest thing that has caught me by surprise is Maryanne Amacher. I like sound that affects the listener physically. Traits such as complexity or simplicity don't really become a factor then. It's just the sound that I pay attention to.
Pitchfork: Do you listen to lots of music?
Kevin: From the time I wake up until the time I go to bed, music is unfortunately on my mind, on my stereo, or I'm making it or talking about it. But while I do listen to records all the time, I rarely put one on and say: "I need to do something like this." Sometimes that urge pops up and I have to do away with it. Although today I tried working with no specific idea in mind and it was pure crap.
Pitchfork: That's one of my favorite things about playing. There's such a good chance of doing something that horrifies you, and yet people might respond to it favorably. It makes me think that maybe I'm not necessarily fit to judge what I create.
Kevin: I know. I go through that constantly. Sometimes you think it's the worst noise you've ever emitted and people will say: "That was the best thing I've ever heard you do." And then the reverse happens, too, and it's like, "What?" Maybe I should just try making a record that consists only of the sounds that I think are crap and see what I can do with that. On Second, I really only used sounds that I liked. I think about that all the time: why use only the sounds that you like, or sounds that you prefer to say you like? I don't know.
Pitchfork: Will you talk a bit about hooking up with the Mego label and the origin of Sheer Hellish Miasma?
Kevin: I've known [Mego founder] Peter Rehberg for several years now. We even did a split 12-inch. A while back, he asked me about doing a record on Mego. First they were going to do the vinyl version of Cases, the collaboration I did with Ralf Wehowsky, but Achim Wollscheid of the Selektion label had a problem with that for some reason. So Peter said, "Okay, we'll give you the Mego 053 slot and just send something when you're ready." Originally, we talked about doing a 12-inch, and also kicked around the idea of doing the first Mego cassette, but by then I had sixty-six minutes of stuff so I just made the CD.
Pitchfork: You have a new record coming out now on Hanson, right? I heard it had vocals on it.
Kevin: Sure do. I'll try and give you a blow-by-blow:
It starts with a crescendo of bassy, white noise vocoding then simmers down, and then cuts to some growling guitar loops (they are guitar sounds even though they sound like voice). And then the record moves on to a barrage of fudge, and eventually some echoey goop. And that's just side one! Side two is all voice, recorded into a synthesizer, which I goofed around with in post-production. There's gonna be a bonus track on the CD: a murky 10 minute-plus wash of gurgling sci-fi bubbles. It's my favorite track of the three. So really only side two (of the LP) has vocals. The title is inspired by a water tower in the town where I grew up. It has a picture of praying hands and underneath it says "Land of Churches." A friend of mine once wanted to climb up it and change it to "Land of Lurches." And there you go.
Pitchfork: How does your daily environment affect your playing?
Kevin: Oh, I was just talking about this yesterday. Give me three months away from my daily environment and I could give you an intelligible response. All I can say now is that my day job finds me in a double-bind often, and it's an ideal position for anyone interested in becoming highly reactive.
Pitchfork: Does the music you make serve as a source of release or escape from the outside world?
Kevin: Both. And sometimes, it gets along rather nicely with the outside world, too.
Pitchfork: Speaking of the outside world, do you find Chicago's scene to be copasetic with your development?
Kevin: Honestly, I don't. A lot of the projects I've allowed myself to get involved with over the past few years have made me a bit unfocused. It's just so ridiculously easy to do things here; if you're part of the scene, in five minutes you can wind up with two gigs within three days of each other. There's too much going on here and that's a bad thing, to me. Unless you want to jam, and then it's good. I'm glad people are doing what they are, but for me there isn't much interesting or challenging music (as far as free, new, post-, or whatever) coming out at the moment.
Pitchfork: You've traveled a lot more, recently. Has it affected your perceptions of Chicago? Does it make it more tolerable, or do you still find it stifling?
Kevin: Stifling? Shit, did I say that? What a bunch of... nah, Chicago is cool. We've got so much diversity here it's insane. For instance, we have the largest Polish population of any city except for Warsaw, and the largest Lithuanian population outside Lithuania. More Italians, Greeks, Irish, Latinos, Serbians, and Croatians than you can shake a stick at. Chicago has it all, I don't know why I'd ever leave.
Seriously, though, it is getting too expensive. If it weren't for the fact that I have a large, cheap apartment with cool neighbors then I probably would have moved a while back. If my rent goes up this year, which it probably will, then maybe I should make the effort to go elsewhere. Vienna, Berlin, or even Guimares would be cool.
Pitchfork: Grounding it all a bit, do you still find that popular music contains an epiphany for you?
Kevin: Sure, I think pop music can still hold an epiphany. I will admit that I don't go out searching for good pop records anymore. I think some people don't expect much from pop music and I don't know if it's because of the quality of what is out there currently or what. I like pop music, though. My favorite record in recent years (and maybe you could argue that it isn't pop) is Sclammpietziger's Freundlichbarracudamelodieliegut. It's something that I listen to often and find it to be transforming. I'm also a sucker for good synth-pop like The Magnetic Fields' Charm of the Highway Strip. That record is excellent.
While we were talking I was listening to Black Sabbath's Mob Rules. It's one of those with Ronnie James Dio. I really like Dio. Pete Townshend's first solo record, Who Came First, is also great. And it's funny, I was just listening to some other Pete Townshend records like Empty Glass, the one where he was basically coming out of the closet, and that's when I heard about him being arrested on those child pornography charges. A shame; it's a great record.