He was using just a kick drum, snare, only one cymbal, and I’m pretty sure that was cracked. However, I’ve never seen another drummer do so much, with so little, than the first time I saw Greg Saunier play. As if there was ever any question that it’s about the artist, not the gear, Greg put any doubts to rest that night. Usually, when we think of a “drummer’s drummer,” images of racks of shiny cymbals and expensive kits pop into our heads, but Saunier has moved drumming forward with little more than its most base elements, freeing himself from what Buddhists call “the burden of choice.”
Best known for his work with Avant Pop band Deerhoof, he’s also made the rounds as a collaborator, working with Nels Cline, Brian Chippendale of Lightning Bolt, and playing in the duo Mystical Weapons, with Sean Lennon. He’s produced records by his own band, Xiu Xiu, People Get Ready, and Marc Ribot, just to name a few.
A master musician, big thinker, and iconoclast like Saunier could probably take the job of being a DJ in many different, and interesting, directions, but we thought it might be fun to move him out of his comfort zone.
“Alex has proposed a ticklish idea: that one who makes a living as a drummer list their favorite songs featuring the drum machine, a.k.a. their replacement. That nasty little box that makes them unemployed. OK I accept.”
1. Baden Powell – ‘Choro para Metronomo’
“For this we must go back to the beginning, the source, the drum machine’s origin story, the historical instigation of all our troubles. Yes dear readers I mean the dreaded METRONOME. A human with the desire and ability to flex struggles to accommodate a brutal mathematics that accepts no friend requests. For all of Baden Powell’s sophisticated cross rhythms and delicious chord substitutions, the merciless ticking makes this song a kind of battle, one which Powell’s frowning final chord seems to indicate the metronome has won.”
2. The Human League – ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’
“But maybe drum machines can make for happy times? Unlike with human drummers you can turn them down, they pack more easily into a car, and require no food. No Iron Chef-level tempering or additional ingredients are needed to produce a square meal, since theoretically they already taste perfect, at least to whatever standards were set by R&D. The Human League’s ‘Fascination’ also has that wonky keyboard part which evokes another momentous music machine, the record-player, spinning an off-centre 7″, lending the song a quality of flawed machines, churning out cheap bubble gum flavoured mass productions.
“The joy barrage of the chorus comes partly from having too many hooks playing at once, as though robots had designed a “hit” without understanding what human ears can actually process. The bubble gum explodes with both mint and fruit flavours. Some may find it paradoxical that this is the work of “The Human League”, but since no other animal created the drum machine, the record player, or the bubble gum, I think they are impeccably named. I also think this one could have been just as good with a real drummer.”
3. The Cars – ‘Cruiser’
“Do I dare introduce ‘Cruiser’? Don’t The Cars have a real drummer? Because he hits soundless plastic pads plugged into an electronic brain that provided these sonic simulacra of physical impact resonances. Who among Cars fans would prefer this played with mere normal drum sounds, when super-normal sounds are available come the ’80s? Weeks spent selecting, tuning, muffling, mic’ing, EQing, compressing, and reverbing an actual snare drum could not improve upon the ‘snare’ sound David Robinson got straight out of the box.
“And in a philosophical inversion of the traditional machine-passing-for-drummer model, he plays as starkly and mechanically as possible, in imitation of, and reverence for, the machine. Not insignificant in this context is Ben Orr (may he rest in peace) delivering so keenly Ocasek‘s odes to artificiality. Also, how it isn’t it household knowledge that he is the main vocal influence on Kurt Cobain (may he rest in peace)? ‘Cruiser’ is even the guitar part from ‘In Bloom’ AND ‘Territorial Pissings’ AND ‘Heart-Shaped Box’.”
4. Kraftwerk – ‘Computer Love’
“I promise we’re gonna get out of the ’80s soon, but I have to acknowledge ‘Computer Love’ from Computer World. That it is computery is of course a decoy. The reason I can’t listen to this computerous song too often is because Kraftwerk can be expressive and heartbreaking! To my ears, this is not strictly a drum machine, or even an imitation of the sounds of drums, but wholly original synthesized blips and sweeps which poetically stand in for drums.
“Generic though the beat may be, utterly sui generis are its sounds, which reveal nothing if not the secret inspirations of human fantasy. In the end, though, this is a song about loneliness and failure, masquerading as a technology commercial. Ah, if only all ads were required to admit the emptiness of their promises!”
5. Robert Plant – ‘Big Log’
“Another decoy is the big cinematic mega production of Robert Plant’s ’80s LPs. I offer ‘Big Log’ as proof. The drum machine gives away that this began life as solitary home demo. The song’s epic voyage existing only in his mind of genius guitarist Robbie Blunt, with only his imagination to keep him company. Add a real drummer and the fragile melancholy is not enhanced, but in peril of being trampled. Wait I didn’t mean to say that, Robbie, please let me be in a band with you, you are incredible!”
6. Gravediggaz – ‘Nowhere To Run, Nowhere To Hide’
“If I were a grave digger I also probably wouldn’t have much use for a live drummer. Tedious manual labor is usually underpaid, and extra funds are unavailable. Sprucing up Gravediggaz with bells and whistles like human interplay, or actual instruments, would kind of spoil the sociopathic fun. Anyway when one has developed one’s charisma to the level of a RZA, a Poetic, a Prince Paul or a Frukwan, then the rawer the better for the potentially distracting backing track. The less interesting the drums, the greater the feat when the finished track is this insane!”
7. Brother Ali – ‘Can’t Take That Away’
“Chronologically speaking, this is the first of my selections from the post-Pro Tools, post-Ableton era, in which the drum machine comes in the shape of a laptop. I have no idea how Brother Ali actually constructed the lovely sounds on All The Beauty In This Whole Life but what initially sounded to me like a real band has, on repeat listens, revealed what seem to be loops made with software, painstakingly designed to evoke the warmth of human interaction and analog gear. I could be wrong. Regardless, I like Brother Ali, and don’t begrudge him his poignant expressions. Organizing band rehearsals isn’t always realistic for everyone’s lifestyle, for many reasons, the drummer usually being the main one.
“In the ’90s I met someone who’d worked at Industrial Light & Magic, and spent six straight months CGI-ing one reflection on one wing of one spaceship in one shot of the loathsome Phantom Menace. No matter how ‘gritty’ all those exploding lightning-speed superhero death defiances may get in Rogue One, Rogue Two, or Rogue Three, I still can’t watch without imagining some bored peon, installed in an office cubicle, day after day, for eight hours, plus lunch break. This quest for ‘realism’ can, of course, be taken too far, but Brother Ali stopped at a reasonable point. “
8. N.E.R.D. – ‘Voila’
“I’m not sure what N.E.R.D.’s excuse is though. Apparently Chad Hugo does play an actual guitar but come on, this is clearly a single chord strike, cut and pasted onto a computer grid for the whole song! And yet I’ve never met a car stereo that didn’t attain its ultimate spiritual potential while blasting No One Ever Really Dies. This is meta drum machine music. Not only is every drum hit digitally burnished and quantized down to the molecular level, in order to elicit maximum sonic fulfillment and listener satisfaction, just like in almost all top 40 music but, in this case, the drum hits are taken from Pharrell‘s prized vintage drum machine folder.
“N.E.R.D. bravely defies Trump-era negativity with their brilliant lyrics of self-motivation, self-empowerment, nonviolence, and nonconformity. At the same time do I detect something borderline sinister in all this yogically perfect production, and my inability to stop listening to it? This is their science and I am their guinea pig.”
9. Mykki Blanco – ‘YungRhymeAssassin’
“Nine and 10 represent what I consider to be the very pinnacle of drum machine music. They express not the struggle of human vs. machine, nor the loneliness of having no one to play with, nor a recreation of a real band at any accuracy level, but rather the artful deployment of human-free drum material for its own sake: a completely new and non-compromise-infected instrument with its own virtuosos. Drums become melodies, melodic instruments become drums, everything is flexible, and nothing is recognizable in this gender and species-fluid universe…”
10. Zebra Katz – ‘Nu Renegade’
“No one could possibly reverse engineer the magic Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz have used to animate these anthropomorphic beings entirely from inanimate protomatter. When you can exercise your brain at such exalted levels using computers, why would any fool go to the physical trouble of actual drumming, with all its added expense and size and weight and roommate-annoying noise? And yet, if someone were to ask me whether I wanted to take up Ableton or take up drums, I’d still say drums in a heartbeat.”
You can listen to all Ask the DJ playlists on the FMS Magazine Spotify CHANNEL.
Find Greg Saunier’s playlist below and HERE.