CM Talks Drums With Franklin KiermyerThursday, November 21st, 2013
Franklin Kiermyer is one of the top jazz drummers Canada has produced. Kiermyer was raised in Montreal but has spent the majority of his professional life in New York City and now currently resides in Europe. As a drummer, composer, and band leader, he has released eight albums, including his 1994 critically acclaimed breakout album Solomon’s Daughter, which he recorded with Coltrane saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. Kiermyer’s ninth album, Further, will be out in January 2014. It features his current band with Azar Lawrence on saxophone, Benito Gonzalez on piano, and Juini Booth on bass.
You can read more from Kiermyer and other great drummers in our annual percussion feature in the November/December issue of Canadian Musician.
CM: What are the main pieces of your live kit and how do you like it positioned?
FK: I’ve been using the same setup for a long time. I use a 10-in. and a 12-in. tom, a 14-in. on my right side and a 16-in. on left side next to the hi-hat. An 18-in. bass drum and a 14 x 5 1/2 –in. snare drum. I use 14-in. hi-hats and two 22-in. rides, one on the right and one on the left. The one on the left right now is from the company I endorse, which is Istanbul Agop, and they call it a “crash ride” and the cymbal next to the ride, the other 22-in., is a China-type, but it’s a prototype that is very hard to describe. It’s not trashy at all and it’s not a China type that is very percussive. It has a very, very deep, airy sound to it. It would be almost as if you were using a very large, thin crash but it’s very warm and dark and has a lot of air.
In terms of how I set up, I sit pretty high and my drums are pretty high and my ride cymbal is kind of at arm’s reach. Not higher or lower, slightly angled. The two other cymbals are a little bit more than a foot higher. I sit a little bit further back from the drums than a lot of people do. I use extremely long sticks that are made for me. They’re more than 18 in. long, which, as far as I can tell, are probably the longest sticks in the world. I went through a lot of iterations, far more than 100 iterations before we arrived at this particular stick. It’s one of the great things and one of the scary things about playing drums for so long is you feel every little difference and while you can mitigate things – I can sit down at any kit with any set of sticks and play – if you’re given the opportunity, you can really move towards an ideal set up and an ideal stick. These sticks are by far and away the best sticks that I ever played.
CM: What is the reason you like them so long?
FK: There are a couple of reasons. There’s the length and also the design of the sticks. You know, if you notice, classical or orchestral players generally use long sticks, pretty fat, and the reason for that is because you can let the stick do all the work. Because looseness and relaxation and drawing the sounds out of the instrument are perhaps the most important things technically in playing any instrument, not only drums, so if you can handle it, within reason, the bigger the stick and the longer the stick, the more you’re going to be able to let it flow. Also, with a stick that long, I can sit back from the drums and address them in a more open way rather than having to really move into them a lot with my body to move around in different ways.
CM: Are you particular about the tuning of your drums?
FK: I’m sure that every dedicated player is really particular about the tuning of their drums. I certainly am. That being said, like I said previously, I can sit down at any kit and kind of get ‘my thing’ happening and it will somehow sound like me.
So it’s both those; the first answer is “certainly” and an emphatic “yes.” But there’s a funny thing; music is magic, no matter how technically or scientifically you want to approach it. Fundamentally, music is this really magical thing. One of the magical things as a player is that the more you develop, the more your thing, your sound, comes out no matter what instrument is put in your hands. Not to say that the quality and the setup of the instrument is not important, because you want to devote everything you can to making the music the best you can, so of course instruments and technique and set up is important, but on the other hand, the musician is really where the music comes from.
CM: Are there any odd specifics about the tuning of your drums?
FK: Depending on the drum itself, what I’m looking for is to get the most resonance ring and truest pitch out of the drum. That’s what I’m going for. I used to think that because I wanted to get this dark and wide open sound at the same time, that I should try and tune for that and the more I developed, the more I realized that that darkness or that richness, that was coming from how I was playing.
So, that’s one of the mistakes or anomalies that I had to work through for years to realize. The way that the instruments are tuned has to work with the way I am playing. It’s like if you want a really big sound and you really want it to ring long, you think, “Well, let me set up my drums like that so when I hit it, the drum will speak like that.” But when you make music, you have an intention and that intention really comes across.
CM: How do you practice at home and on the road?
FK: Well, I would like to practice as much as I possibly can and there’s not always the opportunity for that at this stage. Generally, when I sit down to practice there are certain things I have in mind that I want to work on and develop more. Sometimes it’s because I heard something that I was doing and wish I would’ve done it better. Sometimes, because I hear something that I want to do, I have to figure out how to do it or how to get that happening. And then most often what happens is that as I focus on that, it kind of naturally drills down to the underlying building blocks that I have to focus on. No matter how far I go in a practice session in terms of performing, I always end up back at very simple building blocks and trying to get deeper into them.
CM: In your early years as a drummer, who were you inspirations and did you have mentors that played a key role?
FK: Yes, my inspirations were some of the early jazz drummers and big band drummers and New Orleans drummers. My father’s record collection was what I was listening to most when I was very young. I loved drummers like Baby Dodds, Minor Hall, and Gene Krupa and a bunch of guys like that. All the guys that had the really big, kind of loose, open beat. I really dug that and I should also note that my parents played classical music at home and I really dug the rumbling of the percussion section when the brass was really building up and that big orchestral feeling. I think it was all kind of the same to me. It’s just this kind of expansive feeling so drummers who got that happening were a big influence.
In terms of studying, I never really took many lessons; I was at music college for a while and studied there, mostly classical percussion, but that was for a short while. But before that, I guess I would’ve been about 12 years old when I had my first actual lessons. I had been fooling around for quite a while and I was very lucky because the guy that my father found for me to study with was a very hip percussionist named Paul Duplessis, this was in Montreal, and he was an orchestral percussionist and very involved in the cutting edge at the time of both chamber music but also organizing symphony orchestras for big rock bands like Pink Floyd. He was a very hip guy and I only had a few lessons with him but everything was focused on being as loose as possible, as relaxed as possible, as open as possible, and the whole gig is bringing the sound out of the instrument, not putting it in.
CM: What were the key lessons as a young drummer that allowed you to take the next step?
FK: In a nut shell and looking back now, I am so grateful because Paul hit it on the head; completely bang on. That was reiterated, exemplified, and amplified at different points throughout my life.
One of the wonderful things that I was lucky enough to experience was that Charlie Mingus’s drummer, Dannie Richmond, befriended me when I was a teenager. Montreal had always been part of the east coast jazz circuit and a very lucky place to grow up. So most of the really great bands would come through there and everybody that grew up in Montreal knew about that, and Mingus’s band would come through a couple times a year and so, when I was still there and still growing up, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Dannie and I guess he either took a liking to me or was being very kind [laughs].
FK: Just like everybody I was exposed to the popular music of the time and it was Jimi Hendrix or The Byrds or bands like that. I was very aware of that music and often grooving to it and very influenced by it, too, and I think in some ways that shows up in my playing. The thing was that I never really thought of the genre itself as what was important. I feel a little bit lucky in that way. I don’t know why I was programmed like that or why that happened. I was into music that got to me, music that really made me feel good.
Of course you can talk about what feeling good is and that’s a big topic, but for me, I loved a lot of different music but then to do my own thing or to be part of it, I always felt like there should be a lot of room, a lot of openness to get at what you needed to get at rather than playing so much of a role. So even in jazz music, even though I loved a lot of that stuff, I always found prescribed roles to be confining. The genre I was drawn to, it was that feeling of openness and energy and maybe even courage, fearlessness, things like that I was drawn to in different music more than, ‘gosh, I only want to play this music or that music.’
That being said, in terms of style, I think probably I was also drawn to the hipness of jazz musicians. They seemed very individualistic, especially the music I was growing up on at that time, it was people being individuals and I admired that.
CM: How have your travels and world music influenced your playing?
FK: I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to spend quite a bit of time in South Asian places and elsewhere pursuing spiritual practice. Those travels and living abroad in those places aided in my evolution. I always felt that music and spirituality are fundamentally not two different things; that music was fundamentally a spiritual practice. That feeling that we get, that feeling that transcends concept, fundamentally is a spiritual avenue. So that’s another thing I think I naturally gravitated towards or noticed and never gave that up. So eventually I got to he point where I realized that evolving as a musician and as a person, they’re not two separate things. That at a certain time it was more important for me to devote myself to spiritual practice than it was to ratamacues and flamadiddles.
I was lucky enough to meet some rare individuals who didn’t even need drumsticks or a horn to get more happening than anybody else I had ever met. So researching that and studying them at close quarters, I realized that they developed by looking back inside themselves so deeply that they didn’t find anything and if they didn’t find anything, they just let go and relaxed into that.
The funny thing is, and this really just dawned on me, is going back to the simplest, most essential elements about playing a musical instrument, it’s exactly the same as the simple, direct instruction on meditation: don’t get distracted and relax. Whatever comes up and distracts you, just relax. Stay focused and open and don’t get hung up.
CM: What advice do you have for young jazz drummers?
FK: It’s like Duke Ellington said, “there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad.” The truth of that to me is that anything, if you really open up your heart to it, put your all into it, any kind of music, any genre, any opportunity is an opportunity for something really important, really good.
I think that’s the first thing; be really open to where you are, where you’re sitting at that moment. Really be there and give everything you can to it and be really open to all the sounds that are happening at the same moment and don’t treat all the sounds, the other musicians, anything that is happening, like it’s ‘other.’ Treat it like what you’re doing and what they’re doing is only one sound. It’s only one music and only one song and it’s happening right now in this moment. I think that is the single most important thing. Along with what we were talking about with physical relaxation, looseness, and presence. Be really present, really relaxed, and really open. That means physically, psychologically, emotionally; that to me is number one.
Of course we can get very specific about why does everybody say that triplets are the foundation of what we call ‘swing,’ and if we really did want to spend time talking about that, that becomes its own fascinating study. I’m sure that we will end up at the exact same place of, ‘well, when you play really open, really loose, and really relaxed, everything naturally takes on this kind of rolling feeling…”
One thing that I found very interesting is that a lot of people will tell students you have to be listening while you’re playing. I always found that a little bit puzzling because if you’re listening, well then who’s playing? How can you be playing and listening to things and so I thought about that and I said, “Well I think what they mean is you have to be hearing. You have to be really open.” Then if you’re really hearing it’s not like there’s five different things going on. The more you hear, the more there’s really only one thing happening and then if you really get deep into that, even the artifice of something happening drops away and that’s the magic that people talk about when they say, “Oh man, I was playing and it felt timeless” or “I was really in the zone,” or however people describe it.
CM: When you’re playing with musicians for the first time, what are the fundamentals that you have to keep in mind?
FK: That’s exactly what we’re talking about. Miles Davis used to say, and I had close friends that were playing with him, and they would tell me, the only thing that Miles would say is, “Leave your ego at the door and just be fresh. I want you to just play!”
I think that number one, again, is to leave preconceptions at the door and be available. It’s a funny thing because availability is also like vulnerability; a word that most of us don’t like. The greater a musician is, he might seem imperial and polished but that’s a wonderful presentation of what he or she is really bringing in that moment, which is the incredible vulnerability and availability. What is it Tower of Power said? “We came to play!” You’re really there to be as open as you possibly can and to give whatever you can to the situation. Not so much your idea of yourself or so much of your ego but your feeling. So that’s the most important thing, if you can really stay open and allow yourself to share that feeling, then whether you’re meeting musicians for the first time or for the thousandth time, it will fresh, exciting, and something good will come of it.
You can check out music, video, and more from Franklin Kiermyer at www.kiermyer.com.