Sunday, October 23, 2011

BDK Interview - Liam O'Neill

Drum face, it affects all of us.

Liam O'Neill from Suuns was kind enough to do a back and forth email interview over the last couple weeks. He gave me the most thought out, elaborated answers I've gotten from anybody I've ever interviewed, and is probably the best example of the kind of drummer I intended on promoting when I started this blog. His powerful minimalist approach is accentuated by his broad imagination, and seeing him play this past weekend for the Halifax Pop Explosion was as amazing as I had hoped. Here's his interview:

1. Where did you grow up, and what was the musical climate like when you started playing?

I grew up in Kelowna, BC. Arid, beautiful, at the heart of the Okanagan Valley, and chock-a-block full of golf, wine, and blue hairs. Kelowna wasn't much of a buzzing town arts-wise. There was something of a music scene, mostly comprised of high school band teachers, guys in cover bands, and a few pros who gigged for a living. From pretty early on, I could tell that if I really wanted to get somewhere with music this probably wasn't the place to do it. On the plus side though, as a young drummer I would play with some of my teachers and got some gigs with the local orchestra there. I was way in over my head, and that pushed me a bit.  Story of my life, really.

2. Who were some of your favorite local drummers that you saw early on?

I would go and see my drum teacher Lonnie Burma play around town when he did, but he didn't gig a ton. He was really impressive to me - he was into Vinnie Colaiuta and guys like that so you could see how that can make an impression on a young dude like me. I would go and watch some of the older kids, the ones who had gone off to jazz school or whatever, whenever they would come back to town. More than liking their playing, I remember liking how fucking cool they were. I think that really made a big impression on me. In a way, the content of the playing was secondary. These kids were super hip to me, playing what I then believed to be some modern and edgy shit. That's what I wanted to do.

3. How did you get started on playing the drums?

My siblings and I all took piano lessons when we were tots. It was alright, but I found reading music arduous and difficult. I would usually just figure out the songs by watching my sister play them, or I figured them out by ear. So I guess I craved a more intuitive, more visceral instrument. Drums just seemed like the easiest instrument to me. That, and of course they were fucking cool. What else is music but the eternal, abstract quest to impress the opposite sex? I wasn't gonna impress any chicks playing classical gas on an electric piano. I set up some pots and pans in front of the TV and I played along to MuchMusic videos until my mom got sick of never having any strainers or pot lids, and I got a junker Westbury kit for my twelfth birthday. I would get up early to play those drums.

 The quality of this photo is on par with the quality of most Westbury drum kits.

4. How old were you when you started playing in bands?

I guess I started playing in bands at about age 15 or so. By that time, I was a young budding jazzbian. My friends and I would hang in the band room at lunch hour, rehearsing. We were already deep into stuff like Miles Davis' 60's quintet, which in retrospect seems ridiculous and embarrassing to me, but at the time we thought we were so fucking cool. The idea of a bunch of 15 year olds trying to play avant-garde jazz is precocious to the point of silly, but I'm glad we tried it. Since then I've always played what I consider to be ambitious music, with varying degrees of success. We also gigged pretty regularly around town, which was good experience, and one time the girl I dug came to one of our lame gigs at a cafe, watching us right up front. I did not speak to her.   

5. What was some of the first music you feel really started to influence your playing?

There are probably a million things that have influenced me heavily that I'm not even aware of (those are the most important influences I think - they give you character), but the first major musical event I can still remember well was getting Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I was obsessed with it. It was epic, diverse, emblematic and mysterious. Certainly Jimmy Chamberlain's drumming marked me - it was obvious to me even as a kid that he was what propelled tracks like Jellybelly to insane heights, but I also appreciated him holding down the fort on tracks like Where The Boys Fear To Tread. The only other thing I can remember making an impression on me was having an audio cassette of Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back, when I was a kid, and I remember that it scared the shit out of me but I was totally fascinated by it. The theme to Peter and the Wolf had a similar effect on me.

6. How did you eventually move to Montreal and become part of Suuns?

Directly after high school I moved to Montreal to study jazz drums at McGill University. It was a good new beginning for me - nobody in Montreal knew how much of a reclusive geek I was, so I started being social and partying a lot. I met a lot of older musicians, and Ben (our singer and main songwriter) was one of them. I thought he was totally fucking cool. We would run into each other around town and joke about starting a rock band, and then one day he called me up and told me he was actually starting a rock band and would I be his drummer. I was like "YA". Max was a guy who I had been playing with in various projects for a few years already at that point, and we asked if he wanted to play keyboards because hey, why not? Joe was in the rehearsal space with Ben the first time I walked in, and in four years we still have not exchanged one single word between us. I assume he's in the band but that's about all I can tell you about him. We really had very little of an idea what we were doing. That early stuff was just totally bonkers, thrashy shit. Ben would show us a song, we'd play it once or twice and that was it. VoilĂ .    

7. I'm surprised to hear you had a beginning playing Jazz because your playing is so straight and robotic on a lot of the record, at what point did you sort of start to detach from your early jazz tendencies?

I guess I've always been drawn to precise, economic players, even with the jazz guys I listened to. I like drummers who sound like they're composing parts rather than creating a feel, and I've always tried to play like that. Suuns happens to be a great arena in which to exercise that aesthetic. When I was into jazz I always liked Tony Williams more than Elvin Jones, and I really flipped over guys like Ben Perowsky, especially cos he has a very rock n roll sound even when he plays jazz. Actually I think Tony Williams plays on some of that PiL stuff, not to mention Lifetime. Jim Black, too. So that kinda stuff was important transitional material for me when I was 21 or so when i was getting tired of school and getting to a point where playing jazz seemed irrelevant and depressing to me. The idea of being a smart, pattern-based, hooky, rock drummer was starting to appeal to me more and more. I got Interpol's Turn On The Bright Lights and that totally did it. Icy, beautiful, economical and smart. It was the first time I really heard drumming that made me say "I want to play like that".  Then I found out about Stephen Morris (Joy Division) and stuff like that. I was really trying to go in that direction when the band started. I was trying to get away from playing in a linear, stream of consciousness kind of a way (the way a lot of young excited kids play) and get more methodical, really construct my parts.   

8. I'm assuming you've moved on from your set of junker Westburys. What kind of kit do you play on now, and do you have any pieces that you feel really define your sound?    

I picked up a kit of Slingerlands from 1965 last year and I love them. I also have a new Gretsch renown series snare drum that's actually a pretty interesting sounding drum. Really wide sound, like long, even blasts of white noise. It kind of reminds me of Jeremy Gara's (Arcade Fire) snare. But the drums on Zeroes are a total Frankenstein kit. I was just playing whatever I could find. I don't see any part of my setup as being totally essential to my sound per se, but I definitely do have a much stronger idea of how I want to sound in a general sense than I did when we made Zeroes. If anything, the band is getting more electronic, so maybe I should say my MPC is the most important part of my sound. Just kidding. That would be a dumb answer.  

Where we're going, we won't need drums.

9. Going into the recording of Zeroes QC, was there anything specific you hoped to accomplish with your playing?

Yeah totally. I had some really specific goals, some better executed than others. At the time, recording everything separately was intriguing to me. That disjointed kinda stuff (again, Stephen Morris) where all the various percussion elements are mixed and effected differently was bonging my bell. I recorded Arena in that manner, and I think that's some of the stuff I'm more proud of on that record. I wanted to explore the more studio-specific aspects of percussion rather than the straight up performance-on-the-drumset aspects. We cut up and looped a lot of my parts, like on Sweet Nothing. That whole song was built in the studio. I was also trying to get away from that Bonham style sound with a lot of room mics in the mix.  I did most of the drums in a dry room - a lot of the songs are just one overhead, snare mic and bass drum mic  I wanted no room ambience, and for most of the space to come from post- prod reverbs, if there was any space at all. Varying degrees of success with that one.  Songs like Gaze are a little more conventional, with room mics and whatnot. That, and playing well. That was another one of my goals. Varying degrees of success.

10. Are there any songs in particular you feel represent your artistry more than others?

Different songs in different ways. I mentioned Arena earlier and I think that's telling of my meticulousness and attention to detail (I spent a whole day doing that percussion, cutting it up, orchestrating it all - the guys were getting pretty annoyed I think). I also kinda like how Gaze came off.  hat's more the side of me that digs David Lovering (Pixies) and whoever plays in Tom Petty's band. And then you have stuff like Marauder which is a total mess of bullshit. Whether I like it or not, that came from me. I guess "representative of my artistry" and "proud of" are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It's a lifelong process. 

11. If you had to choose between never being able to record again or never being able to play live, which would you choose?

Wow. That's a tough call. I think I'm a much better performer than I am a studio magic-worker, and for that reason I'm tempted to choose to cut out performing when faced with that awful decision, just because I could stand to get so much better at recording, but I could never do that. Performing is too much a part of who I am, it's been too central to my life for too long, too thrilling for me to give up. If I ever quit performing I'd probably have a massive cocaine problem or something. Recording is more the thinking man's side of the musical process, and I, for better or for worse, am partial to the more visceral side of it. 

12. If you could put together your own band using anyone, well known or not, who would be in it?

Probably I'd like to have a duo with my good friend Adam "Herr Bonizar" Kinner.  He and I are very similar personally and musically, and I like the idea of starting a project with someone only because you really like spending time with them, you can do no wrong. It makes the band process-oriented rather than goal-oriented, which is the best/most sustainable way to be. Similarly, I have a very abstract fantasy of touring Europe with my girlfriend Fjola, who likes cool music. We'd probably have a cool project together. Oh yeah and I would wanna be in Fleetwood Mac. Not replace Mick Fleetwood. Just hang out with those cats. That'd be wild. 

13. Have you ever been to Halifax before? What do you hope to do/see while your here?

Yeah, I played HPX with Young Galaxy back when I used to play with them maybe three or four years ago. It was fun. I won't be there for very long, so I won't get to check much stuff out.  Maybe jet an eye along the harbor, get over my jet-lag with a few too many Propellers (I'm writing this while on a plane back from Iceland). Also, this will be Suuns' third shared festival bill with Chad VanGaalen, and this time I want to work up the nerve to walk right up to him and tell him to his face that Van Gaalen 1 has some of the most shreddin' guitar solos of all time.

4. What modern drummers (friends or otherwise) would you like to see get a little more attention?

I'm digging the girls these days. Stephanie Bailey from The Black Angels is totally amazing.  Whoever that girl from Warpaint is, her sound is crazy. This weekend at Iceland Airwaves, I caught a set from Denmark's Thulebasen, whose female drummer was excellent. I ran into Tune-Yards' Merrill Garbus (a fantastic drummer in her own right) after the set and we both agreed that, universally, there's something unique and heavy about the touch of a female drummer. I know you're supposed to be all affirmative action about it and say that there's no inherent difference between a female drummer and a male drummer, but I find that that's just not true. If there was ever an argument for the existence of femininity as a quality unto itself, free of societal influence, it would be the sound of a really amazing female drummer. It's a really hip sound that's been largely untapped until recently, and now you're seeing more and more of them. Just watch, in five years, less even, everyone's gonna want a female drummer.  I know that might sound like a silly generalization, and I hope I don't sound sexist or whatever, but I really believe it's true.   


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