The Revivalist kicks it with rhythm-phenom Nikki Glaspie to talk about her journey as a musician, woman, drummer, and person.
You grew up playing music in the church, and according to your official bio your mother was your first musical mentor. How have these two influences guided your musical journey up to this point?
My mother played keys. She and the church gave me a strong foundation. The only thing I ever listened to was gospel music. In fact, when I got to Berklee right out of high school, I had not really heard any secular music…I didn’t know certain types of music even existed! It’s funny – when I was in high school, one of my best friends in the drumline with me was a huge fan of Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, and the Smashing Pumpkins. And my dad is a huge rocker. Even though he comes from a church background – his dad was a pastor – he listened to rock music and loved it. When I was about 15, my dad introduced me to Rage Against the Machine, Eve 6, and Van Halen; he played that stuff for me and I freaked out like, “What is this?!” Besides my dad and my friend in high school, all I had heard prior was gospel.
When you graduated high school, you ended up at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Who were some of your most important mentors – students, teachers, fellow professionals – while you were there?
Of course there are a lot of teachers at Berklee who will try and teach music – but music is not the only thing you have to learn to be a professional. One of my teachers – she taught the hip-hop ensemble – Angelamia Bachemin - she really taught me about life in general. She gave me the practical tools just to be able to gig and make a living for myself in that way. She broke it down for me like: you got a gig to play? How do you get there? How do you get paid? What do you need at the gig? You gotta take a rug so the kick drum doesn’t slide, because you don’t know what kind of floor you’ll be playing on! She taught me a lot of things teachers don’t even think about.
As far as musically – there were a lot of cats there at the time, and a lot of my peers were my teachers. I used to go to Wally’s Jazz Cafe, and thats pretty much where everything started for me and for a lot of people. I started in there when i was 18. Charles Haynes was there playing drums, Mark Kelley playing bass, Davy Nathan was playing keys, Jeff Lockhart was on guitar…there were several different bands. The first night that I went down it was a Thursday night, that was Francisco Mela’s night, that was an Afro-Cuban gig. I started playing every Sunday, and when Mark Kelley left, I took over Tuesdays and Wednesdays. That’s pretty much where I learned everything.
Of course- I had teachers at Berklee. I had Mela for private lessons. I learned a lot from Kenwood Dennard, and also Dave Fiuczynski, from Screaming Headless Torsos. It’s hard to explain, but he taught me probably more about music than any drum instructor that I had- he molded me and helped me play things like odd meters.
And I learned a lot from records. I learned a lot listening to Dennis Chambers and Horacio Hernandez, and early on Doobie Powell, and even Dave Grohl. And also, ?uestlove- he came along and made pocket drumming okay for people- there are a lot of cats who say “I have to play all of this,” but he’s a pocket drummer! He made me realize, “I like playing the groove! I like doing this!” I want to make people dance – if they’re not moving I’m not doing my job.
So obviously you have performed with a wide variety of artists, but most recently cats have heard about you in association with Beyoncé and the Suga Mama band. How did this relationship first come about? Looking back, what have been some of your favorite experiences with the band – personal, professional, musical, spiritual – what comes to mind?
I heard about the audition from friends- that was back when myspace was popping. I must have gotten 50 emails like, “Did you see this?” Of course, I thought it was a joke at first – I thought it was some American Idol thing where [Beyonce] would use us for two weeks, or on a tv show or something. In fact, I wasn’t even going to go to the audition. I had just moved to New York 6 months prior. I was trying to establish myself, but I was still going to Boston to play weddings and other gigs just to pay my bills.
The audition came up on a Monday – I had a gig with Sam [Kininger] in Nantucket, it was a Monday and a Tuesday. I had 50 bucks in my pocket and was like, “What am I gonna do?” But I ended up going down to New York for the audition. I didn’t hear anything until Friday. They congratulated me and asked me back, so I auditioned again on Saturday, then at the end they asked me to come back Sunday- this is after hours and hours of playing and sitting and waiting and playing- it was all of this for probably 8 hours each day. Finally, at the end of the day they told us, “You ten have been selected to be in the band.”
So here it is five years later. We’ve all bonded because we basically lived together for a year and a half while we were on tour. The band was pretty spread out- some people lived on the West coast, some in Texas, some in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta; when we weren’t touring we couldn’t just hang out whenever we wanted. But whenever we travelled together and we were in somebody’s city we would go to their pad and have a cookout – that was the coolest thing.
An important aspect of the Suga Mama band is that all of its members are female – how has your gender identity influenced your path as a musician and artist, and as a professional? Are there challenges unique to you?
Oh yeah, definitely! Being a female drummer is not that popular. I go to a session and say “I want to play,” and they take one look at me and say “You can’t play the drums!” I’ve had that more times than I can count, even at a church! “You’re playing for the choir? Really?” It’s definitely challenging, dealing with that. But when they finally hear me play, people are like, “I’ve never seen a girl drummer play like that!” And I just say, “Really? Have you ever heard of Terri Lynne Carrington, or Cindy Blackman, or Sheila E?” I mean, Sheila E. plays with Prince! There are plenty of female drummers who are doing it- Hilary Jones, Stefanie Eulinberg playing with Kid Rock; Michael Bolton has a female drummer. Girls Facebook me every day asking me to check out their youtube videos, and they’re completely shredding! 18 years old and they’re completely ripping! I think that the number [of female drummers] is on the rise.
Touring with Beyonce, you and Kim Thompson, both powerhouse drummers, were onstage next to one another every night. Was it difficult, sharing drum duties? How did you manage to find a balance?
At first it was difficult, just because we had a sequence and a percussionist. There was a lot happening. Not only was there a drum set in the [pre-programmed audio] rig, because you have to have the 808 and the hand claps- but we also had a percussionist and 2 live drum sets. When we first started we had our hands full, but by the second tour it had gotten a lot better – we both took on rolls of less than what we would normally do. Less is more, you know? We would trade off: if Kim is playing hats I’m playing the ride, when she’s playing kick I’m not playing kick, etc. We had to be each other’s right and left hand. It was challenging at first, but after we got the hang of it, it became more fun.
Outside of your work with Beyonce, you have also toured and recorded with a great wealth of musicians who are associated with the jam band scene, including Soulive, Eric Krasno, and your lengthy association with Sam Kinninger. What opportunities and challenges arise in those situations that you don’t find in a pop setting?
The most rewarding thing about being in the jam band circuit is the fans – really – their love for music. Their pure, raw emotion. Whatever you are feeling coming out of your instrument, they appreciate. They love it. They never come to the show expecting to hear the same thing they heard at the last show. They’re not unhappy if you don’t play a particular song. With Beyonce, the audience is a trillion miles away from stage; I don’t get the eye contact or interaction with the audience, which is something I missed and longed for when I was on the road with her. I mean, we did the same show every night- there was no spontaneity. [The jam band scene] is totally different. You can literally play whatever you want and they will appreciate it. They want to know whats happening in your life, and that comes across if you’re a real musician and you play from the heart. And traveling is different too – with Beyonce, it’s very strict in terms of schedule, because there are paparazzi, there are stalkers and things like that: people wanna get close to you because they think you’re close to her. In the jamband thing you don’t have to worry about somebody following you back to your hotel, or coming out of your room and there being a million people there screaming her name. You wouldn’t believe what kind of situations you get into because of that.
Our focus this month at the revivalist is the relationship between musicians and their instruments. Your association with the now legendary Shed Sessionz DVDs — in which you are the only female drummer — has led to folks to associate you with this whole “gospel chops” movement. How do you see this high-precision, chops-laden style as an influence on the future of drumming? How do you think technology is changing the role of your instrument?
I would say that the whole gospel chops thing, well, it’s kind of a phenomenon right now. As far as the future of drumming – where it will go, I’m not really sure. Personally, I think that we are kind of getting a little far away from the basis or premise of the instrument. Like, I hear people talking about penmanship in schools, how there is no point in having a penmanship class if everyone is typing- so pretty soon our kids won’t know how to write, which I think is sad. I kind of equate it to that, in that, if we continue on this path, we’ll be really technically proficient, but we won’t know what a groove is, what 1-2-3-4 is.
The thing about modern gospel drumming is that it is really just fusion drumming – it came from Billy Cobham, Narada Michael Walden, etc.- some gospel cats were just like, “Alright, we’re going to play fusion.” If you listen to all different types of gospel music, you’ll hear all different types drumming, and thats what I love. There’s some gospel that is funky, some that sounds like salsa or has a Latino flavor, and some of the new stuff which really comes out of jazz-fusion.
When it comes to secular music…pop music has become pretty whack. A lot of it is not even music anymore, it is computerized madness. In the ’40′s and ’50′s, popular music was jazz! You could turn on the radio hear Gene Krupa, or Buddy Rich, or Coltrane, or Miles Davis – it’s not like that anymore. These days, everybody with a computer is a producer, and that’s really the truth. They don’t wanna pay people to make records. You got sounds, Logic, a laptop, you’re a producer- which is not necessarily a bad thing, I think its cool that we have the option, I just think it’s taking over. It’s becoming more of a negative thing than a positive thing. 30 years ago, 40 years ago, cats weren’t cutting and pasting. You had to play the parts- you had to know what you were doing in order to make music.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on finishing up Adam Joseph’s sophomore album. [My production company,] Elegant Children Productions released his first record in 2003, and we are really excited about the new record, which will hopefully come out in the fall or winter. It’s soul music. It’s our own brand of soul. Adam is super anti-commercial, so it’s definitely not pop, I can tell you that. The songs come from the heart and from the soul, and thats what we want to do – encourage that. We want to keep that going because we feel like so much of that is being lost.
Interview by Spencer Murphy