These days, drummers and percussion artists rarely seem to get the recognition and showcasing they deserve, especially in underground and DIY settings. American Damage (Records, Books, and Rarities) seeks to help change that with the release of Skyler Rowe’s debut solo album, Beat Work: Language of Battery. It’s a singular exercise in pure percussive improvisation, from a masterful drummer with a background is in hardcore (check his band Rash), and sonic experimentation (check his project Mute Duo, with pedal-steel-ist Sam Wagster). Rowe starts his album with the illusion of structure, a single, hollowed ticking laying a platform off of which untethered intuition can build. It’s metronomic, then it’s completely flooded with fills and clangs and manipulated sounds and suddenly you find you can’t put your finger on it, or anything, but you can’t stop listening — the immersion is imminent. It unfolds like one of those fast-motion-time-lapse videos of a plant’s emergence out of soil, and its subsequent budding. Or maybe the inverse. And it’s like this on every track. Structure takes a backseat to wonderment and you realize just how blank a blank canvas can be. It’s like what you would think Jackson Pollack listened to while painting. Sporadic one moment, then calming the next, so many territories of human psyche are tread upon, and it’s done entirely (pretty much) by hitting things with things. The world could use more of this.
Beat Work: Language of Battery is out June 15 on American Damage. Read a Q + A with Skyler Rowe below.
Impose: Could you talk about your recording process? Was it conceptualized entirely beforehand? Or was there improvisation?
Skyler Rowe: The recording process was pretty simple. I have been recording primarily with Matt Russell at Malleus Sound since I moved to Chicago, which was about 6 years ago. We set up shop and got the best possible room sounds and that was that. As far as preparation for the solo work itself, I had ideas but never went through with recording them, at least not until Jordan of American Damage asked me if I was interested in doing a solo release. That was a good push to just go in and do it. There is a lot of improvisation, but it’s around previous rhythms and structures in each track.
I: Lots of sounds going on. Is that an organ in there? An accordion?
SR: Yeah all the sounds are strictly drums, percussion, and this tiny air organ I’ve had since childhood. It definitely sounds just like an accordion. There are no electronics on this recording…well, unless you count the tiny air organ since you have to plug in to get the air pumping.
I: Are there outside effects put on the percussive instrumentation?
SR: I wanted the sound to be big and airy so there aren’t many effects at all in the mixing. Matty records in a place with such great acoustics due to its hard wood floor. It all sounds organic, which is what I wanted. Plus, I always put my trust in Matty. He’s a great engineer. I’ve recorded almost everything I’ve done in Chicago with him.
I: Could you explain the evolution of your drumming from Rash to Mute Duo to your own solo material? Has there been a conscious shift from hardcore/noise rock to the more abstract?
SR: I’ve always been into fast and heavy music. From metal as a kid and punk and hardcore as a teenager to young adult. But jazz came more effectively into my life right as I moved to Chicago. I’m originally from Indianapolis, which isn’t far. But as I was dwindling down with music in Indy, I moved to Chicago, and Chicago had a ton of music I’d never even seen or heard before. That’s not to say there isn’t anything happening in Indy because there definitely is. And when I got to Chicago I would still go to punk and hardcore shows, but something shifted in me. I found the improvised music scene. It was like discovering hardcore music all over again. My brain exploded. I ended up getting a job at this bar Rainbo Club, and a lot of music and artist types are always connecting on new and different levels. I felt like I belonged. And I’ve been on that wave ever since. That’s where I met Sam Wagster. We started Mute Duo purely from the love of acts like The Dirty Three. To play music that is so loose yet contained is the most freeing feeling. But I also get that playing in Rash. I still love playing hardcore music and it’s hard to let that feeling go. It all goes hand in hand to me.
I: Would you say there’s a prevalent theme behind your work?
SR: There isn’t so much of a theme as more of a feeling I want to project. I have a big love for world drums and percussive beats. It could be the tribal beats of a drum circle or the trashy off-beat noise drones of the city that set me off into a spiral of endless music. It’s been that way since I was young. Everything is percussion. Grab your keys right now, go shake them. Make a rhythm. Scrape them across the table, throw them in the air. The fact that you can make something from nothing is incredible to me. Finding new ways to make the beat. New ways to you. Adding to this great thing we call music. It’s beautiful.
I: Is jazz something you’ve been trained in? It certainly sounds like it.
SR: Jazz is something I am not trained in at all. Also as much as I wish I could say I’m a jazz drummer, I don’t think I’m much of one. I’m just a hardcore kid who found improvised music and found a love for drummers like Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Ginger Baker. They play how they want. And that’s what I want to do. There’s nothing more punk to me than doing it your way. And that’s the only way I know how. But for the record, I’m not much of your standard punk kid. I’m just me.
I: Is Beat Work something you have performed or will perform live? How has that gone/how do you think it’ll go?
SR: I have played solo a few times now. Every time I do play an improvised solo show, I discover new things. The first time was completely terrifying, but the more I explored new sounds, the more relaxed I felt. It’s as new for the person watching as for me. It’s a journey I’m going on. And every time it’s usually different. As for the recordings of the solo tape, if I wanted to truly utilize those sounds, I might need a couple of other percussion players. Half of my inspiration on these recordings are from a Sonny Sharrock record he did solo called Guitar. He plays a track and it loops and he plays over it. And it’s so incredibly beautiful. I wanted to do that, but more in the sense of recording over myself a few times. Nothing is looped, but it’s all layered. If I made these recordings in a show, I would need a couple more people performing. If Beat Work were performed live, I think it would maybe have a soundscape feel. Almost a score for a movie maybe? But the pieces may take a new shape? I guess we will see if it turns out that way.