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 Don’t Blame The Drummer: The Fickle Singer/Songwriter 
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Post Don’t Blame The Drummer: The Fickle Singer/Songwriter
Don’t Blame The Drummer: The Fickle Singer/Songwriter
by: Brian Doherty

What Do You Think?

There is great irony in a songwriter relying heavily on a drummer, thus minimizing their role in the creation of their own tunes. But that’s what I witnessed when working with many singer/songwriters in the 1990’s. I wonder, to what degree did Gershwin, Beethoven, Hamlish and other notable composers, rely on their drummers/percussionists for the principal ideas of their music? My guess is not much at all. Yet, time and time again, I’d work with singer/songwriters who had no clear vision of arrangement, counter melodies, harmonies or orchestration for their own work. In some instances, the easiest element on which to offer input or suggestions, was the rhythm part. For a drummer, this could be a nightmare.

Why The Fuss?

Sometime in the 1990’s, I was talking with engineer/producer John Sickett at a recording session in Hoboken, NJ. As usual, our conversation centered around the state of the music business, note-worthy new bands and the projects in which we were currently involved. This particular day, we also discussed the current glut of singer/songwriters in the New York area. There was a tidal wave of emerging artists going solo, pedaling their songs in an attempt to get signed to a major record label. I knew this first-hand because I’d been hired by dozens of them for gigs and recordings. “You know, they gotta move away from the beat and get back to the song“, John complained, referring to the current state of songwriting craft. His statement hit me hard. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, most singer/songwriters overly obsessed about the beat and groove, while ignoring the real meat and potatoes of their work; the lyrics, arrangement, orchestration, melody, harmony, etc. However, it wasn’t just the overall groove they dwelled upon, but the physical appearance of the drummer as well. Why the fuss?

Credit Where It’s Due

In those days, the standard approach to fleshing out a song would begin with the writer and musicians assembled in a rehearsal room. The singer/songwriter would usually play their song on a guitar. I’m not sure if you can relate to this, but there was almost a standard singer/songwriter guitar rhythm those days. I describe it as strummed 16th notes with Charleston-like accents on beats one, “an” of two, and four. If you need an aural example, check out that song Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This pattern was a song-killer. Rhythmically speaking, it was too active and did not allow for spaces (which are crucial components of a comprehensive rhythm arrangement). After the initial listen, I would ask questions of the writer, including what mood they wished to convey, or if they could refer to a popular song as a model in this instance. The answers to these questions would give us a framework in which to proceed. Often, however, the answers were vague and incomplete, leaving us painstaking guesswork, or the process of musical trial and error. Other tasks ahead of us were to determine rhythm section parts, arrangements, orchestrations, dynamics, kick drum patterns, etc. The subtext of this situation was usually, “I’m not really sure what should be played in this spot, but what would you guys play here?”, allowing the artist to choose from a smorgasbord of possibilities, before rendering any musical decision. Afterwards, when an initial draft was completed, the singer/song “writer” would usually capture the musicians performance by recording it during the rehearsal, thereby claiming ownership of the tune as its sole creator. It didn’t take long for me to realize that all the musicians involved in this process were contributing to the creation of the composition in some way. Hence, it is my belief that contributing musicians should get commensurate writing credit, and financial remuneration, in this situation.

Eenie Meenie

Needless to say, I wasn’t the only drummer helping singer/songwriters in this manner. As a matter of fact, in the mid-90’s, it seemed that singer/songwriters were becoming increasingly picky about their drummers, as they had an abundance of eager, hungry and affordable tub-thumpers from which to choose; a virtual menu of electronic and traditional drummers, if you will. It was apparent that the drummer’s physical look and style was a factor too. There were drummers who wore hats (mostly to cover a bald spot), dressed in costume for a “look”, or spoke in an affected accent, way out of the bounds of their natural dialect. (There was one hat-wearing drummer from the Mid-West suburbs who put on an accent and dialect as if he was raised in the Southern Baptist Church). There were theatrical drummers who twirled sticks or played standing up. There were the worldly drummers who employed more exotic percussion. These guys would have ethnic drums, frame drums, djembes or vintage percussion in their set up. Sometimes they wore an African dashiki to express their inner ethnicity.

What A Bargain

In any event, singer/songwriters always got the better end of the stick. Always dangling the carrot of later, greater success, they’d become agitated when negotiating terms with musicians, weaving in teasers about the promising future of the project, the immanent record deal, or the numerous industry executives coming to the next gig. As a bargaining blockade, they would sometimes accuse their musicians of being mercenaries. Ouch! Try that with your plumber, dentist, or store clerk when it’s time to pay your next bill. Let me know how that works out.


Yet, when things went less than perfect, or the flaws of the artist’s work were exposed, guess which musician would get the blame first? “Did we play the song this slow last time? What happened to that drum fill you used to play in that part? You didn’t play this loud in rehearsal. Is that the drum kit you use on your other gigs? Did you count off the song at the right tempo? My old drummer always set up a conga drum with his kit. Why don’t you bring a shaker or maracas to the next gig?” I could go on and on here. My point is that the artist would say anything EXCEPT, “This song needs to be reworked”, or “I need to come up with a better arrangement for this section”, or “The tempo is too fast for the lyric, so I’ve decided to slow it down”, and so on. In addition, I NEVER heard an artist declare, “This song sucks and is officially cut from our set list. Self-reflection and evaluation of this magnitude was an uncommon attribute in these cases, unfortunately.

Cream of The Crop

To be fair, the singer/songwriters I’m describing for this disussion, were the Bleeker Street, solo breed I observed or encountered in the 1990’s. If you were an active musician during that period, had a pulse, and lived within 100 miles of the Big Apple, I’ll bet you experienced some of this stuff first hand. Happily, I can tell you that I worked with a few incredibly gifted artists from this scene as well. One was Joy Askew. An amazing singer, writer and musician who had previously worked with Peter Gabriel, Joe Jackson and Laurie Anderson, among many others. Another was Hub Moore, a heart-felt lyricist and a expert at the craft of songwriting. Also, there was Ben Folds. Ben, bassist Tom Spagnardi, and I worked on songs in the basement of my Jersey City brownstone, and then showcased them at The Bitter End and Sine. It was at a Sine gig that Ben was discovered by the guy who would be his business manager for many years.

The Silver Lining

Most of the songs, by the Bleeker Street artists I experienced, fell short in many ways. Since I did quite a bit of work in this regard, I found it necessary to make the best of situations–somewhat of a “polisher”, so to speak. As bad as this may sound, there was a wonderful silver lining. In fact, there was no better on-the-job-training for a young drummer, in my opinion. It was making music against all odds, like swimming upstream, jogging with ankle weights or breathing through a straw for long periods of time. By the time you got to the artists with well-written tunes, played by an ensemble of ace musicians, it was as refreshing as a cool breeze on a hot summer day.

About The Author
Brian Doherty is best known as a drummer for groups like They Might Be Giants, XTC, M2M, Freedy Johnston, and Ben Folds. He grew up in Randolph, NJ and earned a Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Brian also holds a Master of Teaching degree from The City College of New York. He is currently a music teacher in the Bronx and remains professionally active in the NYC area. Read my story, see rare video, pics and more on my website
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Mon Nov 22, 2010 11:40 am
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