Tuesday, September 7, 2010

BDK Interview - Jerry Granelli

I learned more about playing the drums by sitting down to interview Jerry Granelli for forty minutes than any lesson or class I've ever taken. The man lives and breathes drums, and while some drummers I interview are sort of lost for words when talking about their intentions or methods, Jerry is very conscious of everything he does on his drum kit and he's able to discuss it with ease. It's no wonder he is a successful teacher, teaching a plethora of maritime jazz drummers from his drum studio on 1313 Hollis St here in Halifax. His new solo drum album which I reviewed last week gave me a good excuse to seek him out for an interview, and I think it went fairly well. He is a sight to be seen on the kit and he was the perfect person for me to have my first ever in person interview.

Let's hope I don't butcher everything during the transcribing process.

Why don't we start with you telling me how the whole 1313 project came about?

I guess like most drummers I've always had this kind of hallucination, and I've done a lot of solo concerts in the 70's and 80's around Seattle where I would just go to schools and take all the shit from their percussion department and make an instrument and then play it, and they actually payed me. And you know, I always solo in concert. Then, well, I guess Darcy (of Divorce Records) brought the idea to me.

How did you get involved with Darcy in the first place?

My Acupuncturist is Kermit Stick, and Darcy was working there during the day. We'd talk about music and he'd say things like, "have you checked out THIS". I was amazed by his inquisitiveness, and the music he liked all had kind of an edge to it.

Divorce Records has a pretty good reputation of being on the edge.

Yeah, I checked it out and it was great stuff. Then it's just one of those things where he was like "Hey man, you should do a solo record" and at first I was hesitant but he just kept pursuing it and we eventually put it together. I said "Here is the time I can do it" so we arranged it at my studio at 1313 Hollis, and Darcy and Charles (Charles Austin, recording engineer) came and everybody sort of got into it. I dragged out my electronics which I haven't been using for a while, stuff I've been using since the 60's.

Basically they came in and said "how do you want to do it?" and I said I wanted to make pieces. I sat there for four or five hours and made pieces and the ones that didn't work I threw away and if there was something I liked I kept it. I wanted pieces that had some compositional integrity to me.

Did you go into it with any ideas you had worked out beforehand?

Some of them were germs of things, some stuff with bells that I had worked on. The last track, A Nice Bunch Of Guys was something I've always wanted to do with overdubbing. If you listen close, it's pretty much the same pattern but I muffle different parts of the drums. I put these practice pad things on them so you couldn't hear them when they were being hit, so different parts of the pattern drop out each time. The interesting part of drumming is that if you play the same sticking and just move one hand you've got a whole other rhythmic highlight. So that's what that is.

I would also come into it at a different spot and try not to use a click track so that it's real organic feeling. I think I've also always loved pygmy music when they get a whole bunch of guys going it get's kind of whacked, y'know? And then Gamelon music, which is very precise. So it's somewhere in between those. When I listen back to it I realize it's a lot of implied pulse.

There's the mallet piece as well (Track 2, Mallets - Notes) where you have the pitches of the drums, and there is kind of a pulse, and it's not pounding at you but it's there. Charlie Mingus used to say he'd rather listen to a faucet drip than a metronome, so there's an organic quality to it.

Going back to what you said about electronics. I find a lot of the classic Jazz guys dismiss electronics, where you sort of embrace the technology. How did you get involved with electronics initially?

In the 1960's I started playing free music with these guys from San Fransisco, and the bass player invented this thing he called the Megatar. It was an 8-string instrument and man, it sounded like a thousand guitars. At the same time the rock thing was happening, and I was using bigger and bigger drum sets, four tympanis, twenty toms, you know, as big as I could make it. Pretty soon it was getting harder and harder to move that shit. Eventually I started hearing bigger sounds in my head than you could produce with and acoustic instrument, y'know? Like, you can't get thunder or a low enough pitch on a drum, and a drum does not sustain. The only way to make it sustain is to hit it constantly.

I started using speakers to drive the heads so that I could make them sustain, and just experimenting with the idea that the drums are a palate. I'm a sound composer, why would I exclude rather than include? And y'know, hanging around the Fillmore with Jimi Hendrix and those people, and really seeing what guitar players were doing, and being able to run my drums through big sound systems.

It's funny how when guitar pedals came along people were quick to embrace it, but it took much longer with electronic drums.

I think part of it is was they didn't build, well, they still haven't built good pickups. I mean I put it away because it was harder and harder to do it the wait I wanted to. I wanted pickups that would be able to run all kinds of guitar pedals. What also interests me is how to make it kind of crude and unpredictable enough that you have to deal with it in the moment. I have this old Emax and it's got a gorgeous bunch of samples in it, and I have myself sampled in it. I use the crude version, Octopads, which I can tune and sort of bang into how I want.

This is a real sort of Halifax gem of a record. You've got Yo Rodeo for the artwork, Divorce for a label, Charles for an engineer. Did that just sort of happen?

Yeah! It's really cool. I really trusted Darcy with this. For me, there was a lot of not knowing for this record. Darcy would come in and say "oh man, this is a great sound" and I would sort of say "Really? You think?" and he would say "yeah man, really" and I would just say "ok man, I trust you". It was really me trusting Darcy and Charles. I mean, I'm gonna be 70 years old, and one could easily become a caricature of himself, but I find that trusting people from another generation is good. Darcy and Charles sort of told me "Don't change what YOU do, just let us sort of fuck with it". So I did, and it worked. It was really inspiring. I find that sometimes, I just don't know.

But are you OK with that?

No, haha, it freaks me out. I'm not gonna lie y'know, sometimes Darcy would say "what do you think?" and I'd say "I don't know man, fuck it, I don't even know about this thing" and he would tell me to just keep going, and I would just get myself totally involved again.

Were you ever scared of misrepresenting yourself as a musician?

No. Really, at this point students will ask me like, hey man, what's you goal? And I'll say at this point, just to stay musically relevant. If I didn't listen to this and hear the compositional aspect of it I would be disappointed. I wanted to make a collection of pieces, but I had no desire to show off. I have nothing to show off anymore.

At what point in your career did you realize that skillfully, as a player, there was nothing left to learn? You know, Your limbs were fully independent, you had all the techniques down, you had done everything you could with your body, it was time to start seeing what you could do with your brain that wasn't being done.

Around 22.

Wow, that's early.

Yeah, well, it was dawning on me, but then I was fortunate to study with Joe Morello (Who I wrote about here). Technically, there was he and I. His solos are all total masterpieces. you can hear that influence, I hope, somewhere in my playing. He was the genius, but it kept dawning on me that I was somewhat hiding behind his technique and then I took a time of just simplifying my playing down to a real bare minimum, letting go of the technique in some way. Then, when I began to play free music I found that this technique was really invaluable, because then I could actually use it. I was like "man, it's really cool that I can keep one thing going with one hand and add another sound over here on the tympani." Then when I went to Vince Guaraldi he didn't want to hear any of it.

Could you see yourself doing something like this again?

Yeah, poor Darcy, I really like this enough now that I would like to do it again. I was thinking the other day that maybe next time that maybe I would go over to Dal or somewhere and just grab a bunch of tympanis or xylophones, just expand, but I don't want to lose it either.


  1. Nice interview with Jerry Granelli, I was looking for this interview on the Internet for about one week and I have not found it till now, so thanks bunches!

  2. really nice one. I really enjoy reading your well written articles. Thanks for your work.