Friday, June 24, 2011

BDK Interview - Jerry Granelli Returns

Last year I interviewed Jerry Granelli when he put out his solo drum album, 1313. It was the first in-person interview I ever did and on top of learning a lot myself, I felt it was one of the best interviews I conducted. This summer Jerry put together a trio and recorded Let Go, a shining example of his his progression as an artist, and his keen technical sense. While he was doing press for his album I was given the opportunity to interview him again and I jumped at the chance. We talked about his new album, his approach to drumming, and the death of his longtime friend and mentor, Joe Morello. It's always a pleasure to talk to Jerry, and I'll probably take every chance I get.

You've had lots of experience playing in a trio setting, what gave you the inspiration to put one together yourself?

I'd been doing V-16, the double guitar quartet and we'd done three records in six years. Then that kind of came to a point where it kind of needed a rest. I did the solo record in between, and it's like Ok, well, what do I want to do next? And I've had this ongoing relationship with Simon Fisk. I'd known him since he was a kid, and I'd known Danny Oore since he was a kid. I just really wanted to try something with them, and we got a heritage grant from the province to get together. So those guys came out for seven days, and everybody brought music and we just worked on what exactly the trio was going to sound like. I knew I didn't want it to be another guitar band, or another saxophone trio. Danny plays all the saxophones and Simon plays cello you know, so it was really a luxury to kind of get into it that way, but it was really a hard way to work, because you go "Ok, this isn't my concept, I'm leaving it pretty open" and "we're going to try to work on material but we're also going to try to find a sound". And I think we've got it. I think we got what we wanted.

How do you go about preparing to record an album like this? Because apart from the underlying theme it's very free and organic. Do you just set up and go?

There are written pieces for this. But with V16 the form kept coming up that we didn't improvise on the pieces, but the pieces were meant to be improvised in. So you're not leaving the core material, but you're finding the freedom within the material to make it sound completely formless, but it does have a form. Which is different than the usual jazz technique of playing something, then playing on it. I was thinking last night how I called the record "Let Go", because we had to let go to make it, but now I feel like I should have called it "Cutting To The Bone" because there is really, no fat at all man. It's very lean, and when I listen to it -- the way it's recorded and the way it's played, it's very honest.

Did you find that going from a four-piece to a three-piece left you more sonic room to explore?

There is definitely more sonic space, but it was kind of a loneliness at first. Not as lonely as the solo record I guess, but it's also, you know, a trio is sort of like a really small fast car, It turns really quick. And then with no harmonic instrument, no chordal instrument, you don't have any of that. V16 was about as fast as four people could get and it would sometimes have two or three songs going at the same time, and I think this band is capable of that.

I was really focused on doing a studio album, and not just capturing a live event.You know, there's cello overdubs and we got Mary Jane (Lamond, Gaelic vocal icon) on the album, there is two songs with her. I just love her voice, she's amazing, she's an incredible improviser. She came in and we rehearsed just a little bit, like, barely at all, and she came in the studio and laid these parts down, just improvising with the tracks.

It's really interesting that you brought a Gaelic infusion into this genre of music. I don't think that's ever been done before.

To this day I don't know what the words she sang meant, but I wanted the voice to be a ghost, and to just appear out of the blue. You know, you're listening to the album and you get through the first two songs then all of a sudden this voice comes in, and you go "whoa, wait, what was that?" and then it doesn't appear again on the next track but it's hidden deeper in the record.

"I feel like every band has a life."

Do you have a favorite piece?

It changes. After a record's done every once in a while I'll put it on, but during the process of getting an album from point A to point Z, you know, I've listened to that shit sooooo much. And I really got into the idea of how this record was going to sound. For one, this record isn't mastered. Most albums are mastered and leveled out, but this one, I went to Vancouver to John Rabham, a great engineer, and we spent two days just tweaking it and Really listening to it, which is what you do with a studio recording you know? It's like a painting, you know, this thing needs to be crystallized. Somebody hopefully will listen to this over and over and over again, and all those little things will be what makes it come alive for somebody who is listening to it. It's the stuff nobody wants to know about.

So you're happy with the sound you've found?

It's not a completed journey yet, we get to go out on tour in October, and then we'll really get into it. This is the first step in hopefully a longer evolution. It'll have a life. I find that bands have a life.

I would definitely agree with you there.

Well it's like they go along and they develop and then they need to rest and sometimes you get back to them or you don't. I find this trio interesting right now because we haven't really played a lot of shows yet, we haven't been on stage night after night but we've got a good little tour lined up for October and it's exciting.

At this point in your career you've basically done everything. This isn't even close the the first free jazz album you've played on, but by taking the helm for the first time do you feel a bigger responsibility to guide the music?

Well with V16 I kind of set it up so that it WAS my band but it really WASN'T my band, you know? And this right now IS my band.

Where your band-mates are much younger do you sort of instinctively take on the leadership role?

Yeah, and I hadn't done that for a very long time. I had a band when I was in Germany called UFB, and they were real young, and for a while it sort of felt like a similar situation. But what the trio is hopefully going to evolve into is that it'll be my band without it being my band.

All I've tried to do is say "Alright, here is the direction I really hear and I really want to go in." At first they were kind of like, "hmmm... I don't know..." and I had to say "I KNOW you don't know, I don't know either, really, but let's keep heading there, I think we'll get there." And we did.

There's an awful lot of trust involved.

There is, but they're such brilliant players, such honest players that even though it wasn't easy the first week, and this wasn't an easy album to record, we worked real hard to get to where we wanted. If it has anything, it doesn't sound like any other band.

It most definitely does not sound like any other band.

Yeah! And that's cool! Colin Mackenzie used to say to me, "You're a sonic shape shifter, man, every time you're doing something sonically, you shift shapes." And that's ok.

You know, there's some songs on there where the drums are just totally minimal, like I'll drop out for four or five minutes, but I really love that because to me, what happens is death, which I guess is part of being a leader.

I think drummers have to realize that we're arrangers, you know, and one of the choices when you're playing is deciding when not to play. Drummers are arrangers, man, we arrange the piece, we control the volume level. I was just up in Banff teaching and I told all these drummers, "Look man, with drums you have all of this power, you can make the piece louder, softer, end, begin, where things come in, everything. Even in pop music." So I think when I approached the record it's like, I don't need the drums everywhere. If you listen to A Woman Who Wants To Waltz on the album, all the drums do on the whole fucking track is go "Boom........Chhhhh.........Chhhhhh......... Boom...........Chhhhh...........Chhhhhh" I think I play one part at the bridge where I do one different hit.

How would someone who doesn't have your level of technique go about developing the abstract component to their playing?

Well it depends what you mean by technique. I think there is a certain point where you realize that you've played enough literal or straight time, that the natural evolution of that is to try and find a way to imply that time without playing it. So in one way I'm playing really really straight, but I'm making it sound as abstract as possible. Breaking down parts, playing sections of them, and that's where the real practice is, realizing where time comes from. Realizing that time has to be internalized and then what you hear on the drums is the sound of the internalized time. But a lot of times we get that ass-backwards, we think by hitting the drum we're playing time, but it's not that way. Does that make sense?

Now the last time I was here we talked about your relationship with your mentor, Joe Morello, who has since passed on. If you could sum up everything you learned from Joe back then, what is the stuff that still sticks with you today?

Probably the most important thing he taught me was that the only important reason for having technique is to serve the music. He used to say that over and over. As well as the physical skills he taught me that allow me to be my age and continue playing. I mean he was 81 and he was still playing.

I think he gave me a great gift as a teacher because he didn't try to shape me musically, he let me do my own thing, but he shaped my hands and everything. We became good friends afterwards, and he was always on that thing about serving the music. It's one of those things where it's like, who cares if you're the fastest drummer in the world, big fucking deal. Sooner or later there will be someone faster then you. But just imagine at the time Morello was at his peak, there was NO ONE faster, or stronger than him. He came along and he changed drum technique forever.

I wish somebody would go back and take his live drum solos off his records and put them out as a volume of work. Just that contribution of all of those solos, it's timeless. It would be an incredible volume of work. He never did anything of his own, and I think that's a shame. He made a tremendous contribution to the instrument, and to the music and to me personally, you know, but he was always about serving the music.

It's a pretty humble stance considering he had the most technical ability of anyone at the time.

Yeah, but it's because he realized what it was for, you know? He was quite a, uh, quite a drumist, hah.

You can listen to Jerry Granelli Trio's Let Go, as well as many other Granelli releases, on his Banddcamp site. Or click HERE for a current list of upcoming dates.

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