Drum Tricks with Dave King of The Bad Plus

Drummer-composer Dave King is best known for his work with the jazz trio The Bad Plus, but his YouTube show “RATIONAL FUNK with Dave King,” an instructional program that includes tips, tricks, inspiration, industry secrets and plenty of laughs, soon will crest the 10,000 subscriber mark.

“Rational Funk is an expose of sorts: light and dark humor, investigating the mentality of people who perform serious music for a living but don't take themselves too seriously,” King says.

The Bad Plus, comprised of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and King, was awarded Best Jazz Group: #2 by Downbeat magazine in 2014, and the group’s album The Rite of Spring was selected as one of the magazine’s Top 10 Records that same year.

The band recently released its 10th studio recording, Inevitable Western, which they describe as “intelligent music for the masses,” melding pop, blues and folk with classic melodies and rhythmic innovation. King recently sat down with Reverb to talk about the state of rock drumming and to offer some advice on practicing.

Do you think that you would be able to fit into the context of an arena rock band?

There's no idiosyncratic rock drumming anymore. Who's the Stewart Copeland today? Who's the John Bonham?"

Absolutely. That shit's easy. I'm sorry, but who couldn't play drums for Coldplay? Are you kidding me? I'm sorry. Come on, man. That's the thing: there's no idiosyncratic rock drumming anymore. Who's the Stewart Copeland today? Who's the John Bonham? Where are those guys who have the sound of the band at their fingertips? Where are the Neil Pearts of today?

I don't mean to be some cranky old jazz guy because I play a lot of rock music. There are a couple of great studio cats, like Steve Jordan and Joey Waronker and — who's the guy in Robert Plant's band who sounds like Jim Keltner? Jay Bellerose. He's wonderful. These are the genius studio musicians. You know instantly who's playing the drums.

What do you most admire about Copeland and Bonham?

Stewart Copeland and all of these guys — John Bonham — there's a touch. There was not only an absolutely recognizable sound and touch, but it was integrated with the sound of the band. The importance of the drums as a melodic textural instrument — a touch instrument — doesn't have to be limited to just jazz or just really strong chops.

John Bonham was not only a master of feel. He took a ton of criticism for how hard he hit because no one hit that hard before him. He was also keenly aware of jazz. He had great rudimental chops as well. He brought all of those things into a new text. When you listen to him, you are listening to someone who knew exactly what the groove needed to be in a very esoteric space. Everything is in slightly different spheres. The hi-hat is chunking along at a slightly different pace than something that's rational. The bass drum had this thing, and it wasn't just the tones. It was like a deep understanding of groove. He completely dialed in an aesthetic that was on the highest level.

We're having some fun, but that's kind of what I mean: Are you anonymous, or are you a creative person? Are you an artist? There's a place to be the workhorse musician, and you play it all, and you're all styles, and you're pro, and everything like that. But there’s also a place in this music for real creativity. That demands more than just some straight chops thing or just playing the song.

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Dave Grohl is one person I could point to.

Dave Grohl is a heavy hitter. Dave Grohl finally admitted, after years, that he was really a Zeppelin guy. You wouldn't have heard Dave Grohl talking like that in 1990. He was all like DC hardcore. But Dave Grohl is a Zeppelin dude. He's a rock musician. I agree: Dave Grohl's got a great sound.

How would you approach playing a Neil Peart tune, considering that you’re coming from such different contexts?

That's a great question. I was a Rush fan growing up. We would approach a Rush tune with the rhythmic complexity that's there. Then we'd try to hijack it and make it our own, not necessarily thinking about how Rush would like it. It's more like how can we make it our own. We've worked with Ornette Coleman's music and Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt and some contemporary classical composers. It's the exact same mindset. It doesn't matter what genre it is. We don't look at The Pixies and go, “We don't have to take this as seriously as we do Stravinsky." To us there isn't a hierarchy. It's just great music.

Do you know how to play “Tom Sawyer”?

We recorded “Tom Sawyer” for our record Prog in 2007. It was a deep homage. Reid and I loved Rush when we were kids. For us it was just an important song; it was a gateway song, in many ways. Prog rock turned us onto '70s fusion, turned us onto '60s modal jazz. You go back. In fact, we searched for it that way. Then be bop, free jazz, swing era jazz. Every door opened another one.

We're playing the form, but it's most certainly reacted to more in the moment than what a rock band would do, where a guitar solo would be happening. In fact, the solo section in our version of “Tom Sawyer” is mayhem. The piano solo is insane, and then I'm reacting in there within the time structure. But it's not dissimilar from our music, in many ways.

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Is there some sort of trick that you can pass along?

When I was teaching years ago, we would have a really serious technical regimen, which I always had. I wanted people to spend time improvising and playing, almost like a through-composed contemporary-classical percussion piece; something that sounds like Takemitsu. Something that's got the ear on the hook, that has a beginning and an ending and tells some sort of thematic story. That really builds your ability, to think melodically, think texturally; think about touch and color and all of these other avenues. That's kind of what I mean.

I believe in playing with people as much as possible, playing with your peers and exploring new techniques that way. But, when you're just working on your instrument — it doesn't matter what instrument — I think it's super important to have a focused technical agenda instead of just jamming by yourself.

Drummers and guitar players can get in that zone and two hours have gone by and they've done nothing productive. Get your technical regimen together — whatever you're working on — and at some point in time, improvise a little solo. I'll close by improvising a little vignette of some sort. Again, just the exploration of touch, without the idea that I'm going to play at a set rhythm, for instance. It's going to be more like a tonal thing, but that can also use rhythms and polyrhythms and use all of your macked out stuff.


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