A great drummer can make the difference in a band. Anyone will tell you that’s a fact. Try to imagine The Who without the thunderous, kinetic play of Keith Moon. Or “Be My Baby” without that famous drum break and frantic yet tasteful fills by Hal Blaine. Or James Brown’s classic records without the “Funky Drummer” himself, Clyde Stubblefield. Even the much-maligned Ringo Starr knew exactly when to accent a moment in a song with a perfect fill (think “Helter Skelter” or “Drive My Car”) and when to sit back and let the music groove.
Sadly, the drummer is often ignored in indie-rock conversation. Maybe it’s because the genre itself doesn’t lend itself to the kind of flash that classic rock and roll or funk or jazz does (there aren’t a lot of soloists in indie rock). The drumming in a ton of indie rock music also doesn’t move beyond simple timekeeping or tasteful grooves, which doesn’t immediately impress as much as a great jazz solo or a thunderous metal part. As a drummer and indie rock fan, I’ve found the genre to house plenty of interesting and excellent players, some of which don’t get the respect they deserve. These are just a few of the drummers of indie rock who deserve more attention.
Bryan Devendorf – The National
One of my goals with this list was to highlight some drummers in indie-rock whose names do not get mentioned a lot. That means no Glenn Kotche or Janet Weiss or Zach Hill: no heavily known entities. Including this guy seems a little antithetical to that goal. Just about every review of any National album will mention Devendorf ‘s unique, off-kilter drumming. But more drummers should take note of his creativity. He’s quite versatile, sometimes playing jittery and driving rhythms on songs like “Graceless,” and taking a more minimal approach to percussion on quieter tracks like “Slipped” (both songs off their latest album Trouble Will Find Me). He’s more recognizable for the former approach to percussion, playing some of the coolest linear parts in music right now. Devendorf’s drums can take songs that don’t seem to have much rhythm or shape whatsoever and give them their punch, but his playing never feels invasive. A perfect example is “Squalor Victoria” off of their 2007 breakout album Boxer. His dancey, tribal march gives a song built around a droning violin and a lock-stepped piano groove its life and its sense of building dread. And live, he turns it into another beast, embellishing the intro with little variations without missing a step and expertly building to its chaotic finale. It’s really something to hear.
Chris Wilson – Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Bringing the energy of punk with a freewheeling swing, Chris Wilson is a perfect match for Ted Leo’s melding of punk and Irish folk music. His playing takes many different forms: from bar-band swing (check “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone”) to thrashy punk (“The Stick”) to dance grooves (“The Angel’s Share”). But whatever he plays he does so with true personality and musicality. There’s accents in how he hits his cymbals or which toms he hits during a fill that go beyond what you can teach. A drummer can play the most technical part in the world with the most complex polyrhythms but still sound like a machine. Chris Wilson always sounds like a human being, adding musicality to even the simplest parts. He’s the beating heart of a band with a whole lot of it. There are many impressive, creative parts in his catalog (“Mourning In America,” “Who Do You Love,” “Heart Problems”), but my favorite just might be the title track from their 2004 album Shake the Sheets. I particularly love how he builds up to help create tension: the clever 16th notes on the hi-hat in the chorus, his hi-hat accents in the 2nd verse, his part during the bridge. His part is all about coiling up before the release of one of the most cathartic choruses in the Pharmacists’ catalog. When he settles into the almost reggae part of the outro, it’s a comedown after a rally. It’s a versatile part from a versatile drummer.
Jason Gerycz – Cloud Nothings
One of the biggest moves in the creation of 2012’s excellent Attack on Memory was expanding Cloud Nothings to a full band rather than a one-man musical project, and Dylan Baldi could not have chosen a better drummer than Jason Gerycz. His parts for Cloud Nothings are a firebomb of speed. More than that, they’re smartly put together. “Stay Useless” in particular is an oddly structured rock drum part, playing the ride cymbal (usually reserved for the chorus) for the first part of the verse before switching to the hi-hat. Occasional 16th note additions also help build tension before releasing for the big, loud, crashy chorus. That song is filled with musical drumming choices that reveal more than brute force. On new single “I’m Not Part of Me” off of the forthcoming album Here and Nowhere Else, his bursts of snares in the pre-chorus rain on the track like bullets. Pitchfork compared his performance on the track to Tre Cool, and it certainly recalls some of those classic Dookie tracks. Gerycz is more than that though: equal parts Clem Burke, Steve Shelley, and Dave Grohl. As much as I’d love to share that excellent new track (find it on Soundcloud), I must instead point to the first time this guy made my ears perk up. “Fall In” from the aforementioned Memory opens with a very Grohl-like triplet snare and toms part before going into a fiercer punk beat for the verse and closing with some excellent syncopation in the final chorus. It all feels instinctual, and that’s a great feeling from a drum track.
Joe Easley – The Dismemberment Plan
Any fan of The Dismemberment Plan will tell you about Joe Easley’s drums. He’s technical, speedy, dancey, and just plain creative. Few drummers could balance the odd chaos of this band as they jump time-signatures and bounce from anxious verse to melodic chorus to just plain weirdness, but Easley does it with ease. His parts are tight and animated, with fills that often spill over into the next measure. On their craziest songs, he creates a schizophrenic vibe, with his rhythms pushing and pulling every which way (prime examples: “I Love a Magician,” “Memory Machine,” or “That’s When The Party Started”). His furious parts make their 1999 masterpiece Emergency & I one of the greatest drumming albums of the 90’s and gave any semblance of life to last year’s disappointing comeback album Uncanney Valley. Not just frantic and energetic, he can also match the songs when they’re more subdued. An excellent example is “The City,” possibly the best song on a great album. The song is a portrait of loneliness and urban alienation with the heartbreaking admission that “the city’s been dead/ since you’ve been gone.” Easley’s syncopated dance-beat, seemingly the wrong decision for a sadder song, serves as a brilliant counterpoint to Travis Morrison’s lonely lyrics. The beat serves as the reminder of the “you” in the song, a memory building as the song goes on. It’s also simply a really awesome beat.
Chris Bear – Grizzly Bear
It’s fitting to end with the most unique drummer on this list. More inspired by jazz than rock, this conveniently named drummer is a master of groove. He simply plays like no one else. One could make a list of his tendencies, but few could repeat them. His jazz background shows in his love of triplets, like in the driving march and final broken-groove syncopation on Grizzly Bear’s biggest hit “Two Weeks.” He can showboat, like in the apocalyptic chaos that closes “Lullabye,” and he can minimize his presence when necessary (like in “The Knife”). But it’s in Grizzly Bear’s rock songs, like “While You Wait for the Others,” where his exuberance and unpredictable rhythmic displacements really bring life to what could be a fairly standard part in the hands of a more typical drummer. But in the case of Shields lead single “Sleeping Ute,” it’s just fun to sit back and listen to the man unleash all the things in his wheelhouse. Jazzy ride patterns, unhinged snare placement, unique cymbal sounds, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blistering fills add to the chaos of this psychedelic folk guitar freak-out. Listen and behold.