Give The Drummer Some: Chris Dave Discusses Ensemble Supergroup The Drumhedz
Generally, musicians always take a backseat to lead singers, rappers and performers. This is especially true in today’s mainstream, as appreciation for live music has dwindled. Despite being under-appreciated by many, elite musicians remain absolutely invaluable and key to making an artist sound good. One of the best in the business is drummer Chris Dave who’s played behind just about everybody including Adele, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Robert Glasper, Mint Condition, and Yolanda Adams. Along the way, he’s crossed paths with some equally talented players, and they’re just now getting a chance to collaborate for a full project of music they all long to make but seldom have the outlet. The ensemble – saxophonists Gary Thomas and Kebbi Williams, bassists Pino Palladino, Derrick Hodge and Joseph McCreary, guitarists Isaiah Sharkey and Tim Stewart, and keyboardist Pookie Sample – is called Chris Dave and The Drumhedz, and while they’ve performed together for years, their first studio release, a mixtape of the same name, dropped January 18th.
The result is an hour-long virtuous, genre-less, sonically superb audio experience. Life+Times catches with the world-class drummer to talk about his band, Chris Dave and The Drumhedz Mixtape, and his own personal sound.
Life+Times: So who are the Drumhedz, and why and how did you assemble this cast of individuals?
Chris Dave: Basically, The Drumhedz is like a family of friends and creative musicians that are tied together through live music. At the core would be Pino Palladino on bass, who did all the D’Angelo records is a member of The Who; Tim Stewart is one of the guitar plays, he does American Idol, Lady Gaga, all this other stuff, but that’s not his focal point and that’s how it is with everybody. It’s like a team of underdogs. Because all of our friends happen to be musicians, everybody was keen and hyped to do a project where it’s like, “think of what a record company would not want you to do. Let’s do a whole bunch of those.” Stuff you would want to play, but you can’t because of a certain artist you’re doing a session with or recording with. That doesn’t mean that those musicians don’t have ideas like back in the day. It’s really trying to show that you can still have a sonic vibe if you have live musicians. Let’s not forget that everything you’re sampling today came from a record, and that came from musicians. So, if we have that standard when we play live, then other people will get it, like, “Oh, so you can sound like that live?” instead of, “Oh yeah, they have a live band, I already it’s not gonna sound like the record. Cool, but I’d rather hear the record.” Because a lot of my friends are like that, then [when they hear us] they’re like, “man, that sounded like the record! That messed me up.” So, it’s kind of an ode and fight to keep the music, live music and musicians going. A crowd for all the unsung musicians that are behind a lot of the movement that goes along with music, and so a lot of the outside members are people like that. Like James Poyser, who’s on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon with The Roots, he wrote a lot of stuff for a lot of people, but he’s still like, “Man, I always wanted to do something like this”. So [with The Drumhedz], it’s like, “Yeah, well let’s figure something out with that, that would be fun for DJs to sample now.” There’s no music out that has that vibe like, “man, I wanna get that snare, or, oh, did you hear that break”. Everything comes from the ’70s and before, so why not do that now? We still have our influences, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to limit ourselves from doing new music.
L+T: For the Drumhedz Mixtape then, what are people hearing?
CD: It’s basically documented audio excerpts and ideas and brief influences of things we like. Just music; not a genre of music, just music in general. It sonically has a focus on the drums, but it’s a passive focus or an aggressive focus, depending on how you listen. That’s what we were trying to go for. Eighty percent of it is all live music. Some are excerpts, some are real short, some are long, so it’s kind of like a journey into that vibe, where it goes through hills and valleys. It’s all welcome.
L+T: There’s some footage of a couple different times when you all have covered [John Coltrane’s] “Giant Steps” and [Herbie Hancock’s] “Actual Proof.”
CD: I always wanted to play “Actual Proof” with Herbie. Then I finally met him and we were talking, so that kind of influenced me that night. I told him when I go out with my band, they’re gonna wanna do one of your tunes, I just don’t know which one. I always liked “Actual Proof” and I never really played it a lot, so it was fun to play. Playing “Giant Steps”, it’s kind of like, we all used to play that all the time. So, we’ll start with that but we’ll just play it short, because for the people that don’t know, it’s like, “This is where it came from, “Giant Steps”, and now we’re gonna play [Q-Tip‘s] “Let’s Ride” in the middle of that.” Then for the older people, it’s like, “Hey, that sounds familiar. They’re playing “Giant Steps” but they’re not really playing it all the way through.” It’s like an educational thing without it being known, so that’s fun too because you’re hipping people to stuff. You’re kind of playing like a DJ because half the band might fade out while the rest of the band fades in with something else, so it’s almost like you’re on a mixtape. This song fades out, the DJ fades this other one in. It’s kind of like that vibe, but live.
L+T: Are people ready for The Drumhedz?
CD: Well it started because every summer we go to Europe. And you know how it is, in Europe it’ll be damn near like The Beatles, then you come back to the States and people are like, “Man, what you been up to? Where you been at?” Like you haven’t been doing anything. So every year, we’re doing those festivals and sold out shows at the club. We did Billboard Live for three nights in Japan. Paris, Ronnie Scott’s in London, these are places the “big boys” do. We’re filling them out for two nights with no product. So it’s like, the least we can do – just for the support for the last few years – is put together some kind of mixtape just to thank people for the support and then aware other people of why they support us, if they care to know.
L+T: As a drummer, how have you come up musically?
CD: I came up with gospel first. I was playing with Kim Burrell, Yolanda Adams and The Winans. Then, after Howard [University], that’s when I got with Mint Condition and started writing with them, doing tours, meeting people. After that, that’s when the Kenny Garret and Meshell N’degeocello stuff started to take place. So it was gospel, then R&B, then jazz, then hip-hop, then the Adele and everything after that.
L+T: Talk about your sound as a drummer. Your snare drums always stick out, and you’ve talked about your love for snare drums before.
CD: I guess the snares, depending on how you want to look at it, they’re all different personalities. If you’re looking at it as a life type of thing, those would be different life experiences. All snares, you can make them sound different because they’re already two sounds: with the snare on it’s a snare, with a snare off it’s a tom. So, you’re already getting twice as many sounds per drum off top. And then, if you’re into tuning and emulating sounds – stuff like that I’m into – then it really comes in handy because now, every song can sound slightly different, but more like the actual original thing, instead of everything sounding the same. If you’re playing Rob Base “It Takes Two”, but you don’t have an 808 with the kick, it’s gonna sound different. Then, you’re sitting up there with a big old drum machine and it’s just Alicia Keys on piano, when you should be using brushes on some cool, pimp shit. So the snares just give different personalities to the song and I like that you can make them two different sounds. I look at it as more hands-on and the sounds are just relative to whatever I’m doing at the time.
L+T: There a quote on your website were ?uestlove says you’re “…Probably the most dangerous drummer alive. He is totally reinventing just what you can do with drums.” Any idea why he would say that?
CD: I think he’s just being nice. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s like if a girl told you, “you have excellent eyes to be a model.” Everyday you’d still be looking in the mirror, like, “huh? I don’t get it, my joints ain’t even blue or nothing [laughs].” I’ve got much love for Quest, he’s one of my favorites because I grew up listening to that. But coming from [my perspective], while they were doing the hip-hop thing – we all kind of grew up listening to hip-hop – they were the first live band doing it like that, I was on the other end. I’m on tour with Janet Jackson, but I’m mad that I can’t go see Wu-Tang. So, I’m trying to figure out how do you do both. And then I guess the fuse starts coming. Sometimes you play a R&B song but then you start to have a hip-hop feel. But you’re listening to it as a producer too, so you’re like, “I wanna play it exactly like the drum machine, but play it live.” If you were singing, and a drummer came and played it exactly like the drum machine, you’d be much more hyped than if a dude never played the beat [how it originally sounded]. So the audience is sitting there like, “man, they started singing but I didn’t really know the song because I guess the musicians just changed it all around.” They don’t have a producer/consumer/polished, seasoned musician [mentality], which is a hard thing to learn. We all go through it as young musicians.
L+T: Did it take a while for you to get to the point where you’re at now, where you have a good balance of being a producer and musician and there’s no real genre?
CD: It’s kind of like a never-ending chase. You damn near have to have a manager or somebody around you, like, “Man, just put it out,” cause you’ll be 80-years-old in the grave talking about, “If I just had three more days, I’m telling you, there’s a version I want you to hear.” That’s how musicians are. It takes a while, but then it morphs into something without you knowing it. I think that’s kind of what it is. If you were like, “I want a group with this, this, this and this, I want the music to be like this,” but you might start rehearsing and it keeps going back to this vibe, or you start to hear a little style within everything that you do. And if you play a lot and practice a lot, it kind of comes out.
L+T: Who do you have stuff coming out with in 2013?
CD: There’s a lot of stuff I’ve been doing overseas, so a lot of those artists don’t even speak English, which has been a new, interesting thing for me. I’ve been working with Garageband, Apple, jingles, stuff like that doing a lot more writing. Then coming out this year for certain, of course D’Angelo’s record; I’m not sure if Adele is coming out this year or not. A lot of that kind of stuff, then working a lot on trying to finish my record as well, the actual album for The Drumhedz.
L+T: How will that album compare to the mixtape?
CD: It’s like you can’t really give 100 percent dosage up front, because then it might be too much. So it’s just a slow intake so that over a whole span of time, you can have a whole body of work.
Chris Dave and the Drumhedz Mixtape is available for download here.