Story by Adam Budofsky via Modern Drummer | Photo by Priscilla C. Scott
Drummer and singer reunite on one of the more highly anticipated albums of the year.
You know when you put your ear right up to a perfectly tuned floor tom and tap the head ever so slightly, and if the room’s quiet enough it sounds like that pillowy rumble could be coming from the very depths of the earth, and it might just go on forever? And you know when you’re at a metal show and the drummer launches into a double bass attack that’s so loud and low and forceful that you can feel your internal organs shiver and shake? Well, Jess Gowrie certainly knows those feelings. In fact, on Chelsea Wolfe’s seventh album, Hiss Spun, she’s the one pushing the music to the farthest ends of that dynamic spectrum. It’s an extremely satisfying thing to experience, and it perfectly frames Wolfe’s songwriting and arrangement style, which spans the fragile delicacy of acoustic icons like Nick Drake and the classic howl and drone of, say, the Cure’s Pornography or the Melvins’ Houdini.
The fact that Gowrie’s playing works so well with Wolfe’s music is no accident. Though this is the drummer’s first appearance on one of the singer’s solo albums, the two spent three years together in the Sacramento, California, band Red Host during the mid-aughts, a period when, as Wolfe has said in prior interviews, she was being influenced by the drummer’s taste in heavy music. “I have a hard time taking a hundred percent credit,” Gowrie tells MD. “But back then my friends and I were definitely listening to bands like Marilyn Manson and Queens of the Stone Age. So by default it sort of got her into it too.”
Cut to 2017, and we find the two putting their heads, hands, and hearts back together in the service of creating an album concerned with, as Wolfe puts it, “cycles, obsession, centrifugal force, and gut feelings.” Producer Kurt Ballou (Converge) helped flesh out the idiosyncratic tones that Wolfe is known for by providing a wide variety of snare drums and encouragement to try some unique production techniques. “I played on two different kits,” Gowrie explains. “One we called the trash kit, and it was set up in the basement, where it was really reverby, and the other was more like your regular live kit. A lot of times I’d record the entire song on both those kits, and we would use certain parts played on each of them.”
Ultimately, Gowrie’s most important considerations for parts and sounds depended on Wolfe’s voice and melodic sense. “One of the awesome things about playing with Chelsea,” Gowrie says, “is that she has a real talent for writing melodies that are very catchy yet unpredictable. When I approach writing drum parts with her, I concentrate on the melodies almost more than the riff itself, because they dictate the mood, the vibe. And then when we went into the studio and really [focused on] the tone of the drums and which kit, snare, and cymbals we’d use, it really mattered to me how her vocals sounded on each track. On the song ‘Twin Fawn,’ for instance, I played on a banjo instead of a snare, which is very different from just playing with the snares off. It worked so well with her vocals, and that was the main objective.”
MD: Tell us more about the making of Hiss Spun. You mentioned playing off of Chelsea’s melodies.
Jess: Lyrically as well. I never really thought about it until working on this record, but I was doing it without even knowing it. But lyrically and melodically, if the drummer has that kind of ear to separate themselves, the drums can become that kind of instrument too, not just like the 2 and the 4. Some of my favorite drummers I feel do that same exact thing. And it just dawned on me that that’s what I do, with Chelsea especially, even going back to when we were originally in Red Host together.
MD: And the way you play together has probably improved with each time you get together to create new music.
Jess: Yeah, hopefully. You’ll never be the best, you always have to try to get better. And her albums I think speak volumes about stepping up each time.
MD: There are great extremes in her music—sometimes it’s very quiet, sometimes it’s very slow. Drummers often look forward to playing fast or loud, but it can be just as much fun going the other way, if you embrace it. Do you have any thoughts on playing slowly or quietly without losing the intensity?
Jess: Totally. It’s interesting you should say that. I teach drums as well, and one of the things I stress, especially to the beginner, is practicing slowly with the metronome, and then taking the speed up. Like you said, everybody wants to go super fast, but if you don’t start slow, it’s going to be sloppy when you do get fast. You have to build up to that. Some of the slow dynamics on the album, once again, I’m trying to support the melody, but making it interesting by playing with mallets instead of sticks. It’s not reinventing anything, but it really adds something interesting to it without being all crazy or weird or fast. And I’ll just try to put accents in that shine, instead of relying on power and volume. It’s more about placement with the finesse of, like I said, a snare that’s turned off, or mallets.
MD: Do you encourage your students to record themselves?
Jess: I actually record our lessons, in part so that I don’t have to write everything down; we can go back and reference it. But also, we’ll do exercises in the beginning. Before we even get on the kit, we’ll do exercises on the practice pad—a lot of slow, boring stuff, they probably think, but in the end it’ll pay off.
MD: With Chelsea you’re also sometimes playing very quietly, like on the song “The Culling.” It’s so nice to hear drums played that quietly on an album. Drums can actually sound “pretty” at a low dynamic. That can be very demanding. I know in my own playing, I have to really take care not to get too loud during fills. It’s a constant struggle.
Jess: Absolutely. I think that’s really hard for any drummer. Because guitars have volume knobs. With drums, you are the volume knob. But when I went into playing with Chelsea again, I knew her style, and I knew that there were going to be slow songs, quiet songs, more intense songs. And it wasn’t until we started jamming on new stuff, not even knowing what songs were going to be on the record, I felt like we kind of pushed each other. That’s why I think it sounds different but it still sounds like Chelsea. Because it boils down to her vocals and melodies; they really shine on all her records. So my job is to definitely not play over those and distract, but to support. And if it was a quiet moment, then I had to figure out what to play on the drums. Sometimes there were no drums. And a lot of times I knew that there shouldn’t be. And I think that’s a sign of maturity with any type of musician, knowing when not to play a damned thing.
MD: You can even look at it selfishly: the longer you’re away, the better it sounds when you come back in.
Jess: Absolutely; a lot of the songs do come back in with a crashing moment. And it’s definitely amplified, especially live. We’ve been playing “The Culling” live in Europe. People have never heard the song before, and it starts off slow, with the mallets and the turned-off snares, and all of a sudden it comes in—bam—and you can see the reaction of the people, because they have no idea what to expect. It’s really interesting.
Another thing that’s rad about working with Chelsea—and maybe this is because we do have a past—but she definitely trusts her musicians to have ideas and their own personalities in their playing. She was very trusting with me just hearing the track and suggesting, “It could go like this….” We would discuss it, obviously, but when you can let other people be free to express themselves, you’re going to get a really good product, and an evolution in your albums, and improvement. Letting people in that small circle is really important.
MD: Going back a bit when you were discussing constructing parts in regards to her melodies and such, watching videos of bands that you’ve been in over the years, you seem to have a loyalty to that concept. Even when the music might be considered more wild, you seem to be very conscious of coming up with cool parts and orchestrating. Is that something that you’ve been conscious of for a long time?
Jess: I think so. I think it’s something I got from the drummers I listened to growing up, like Jimmy Chamberlin from Smashing Pumpkins and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden. They’re jazz drummers that are playing rock music. So their beats are more interesting. They’ve got the chops to spice things up but not overplay. I’m definitely not a jazz drummer, but learning those songs and playing along to them, it definitely forms you when you’re approaching a section: What can I play here that has personality but has a groove and works with what everyone’s playing, not just me? That’s what I get from Matt and Jimmy; their drumming is phenomenal and it’s perfect for their bands.
Photo by Calibree
MD: So what bands are you still actively playing with? You’ve played with Happy Fangs, I’m Dirty Too….
Jess: Unfortunately those bands are no longer. I’m Dirty Too in theory will always be a band, because it’s just me and my friend Zac Brown, and whenever we have time we’ll work together. But we haven’t had much time lately. The active bands I’m in are Horseneck, which is kind of a post-hardcore/metal band, and Chelsea.
MD: I was listening to Horseneck this morning; that’s a pretty recent release, right, the Heavy Trip album?
Jess: Yeah, it came out in February, though it was recorded a while ago.
MD: You have dates with Chelsea through November.
Jess: Right. The album came out September 22, and we’re touring the States now, but there will be European dates after that. And who knows, maybe even a second go-round through the U.S. next year. Then whenever I’m not out with them, Horseneck will book things around Chelsea’s schedule so I can play with them. So basically I never get to sleep. [laughs]
MD: Then when you’re home you’ve got lessons.
Jess: Yeah, though I’ve slowed down on that because I have no consistent schedule anymore. But for students who are open to me cancelling and rescheduling, I’m there for them. But I keep my schedule as open as possible for Chelsea and Horseneck.
MD: I was reading a story about I’m Dirty Too where you had to at one point decide to do the singing, which is great, you were basically letting circumstances lead you in a certain direction and following it. And then when I put on the record I was like, You sing great! I’m not even sure what you were shy about.
Jess: You have to keep in mind, I’m Dirty Too came out after Red Host broke up. So going from Chelsea to me singing…I mean, Chelsea is such a good singer, I had high standards for who my next lead singer was going to be. That’s why we ended up doing it. Because, honestly, we just couldn’t find anyone that fit the bill. I’m definitely a drummer, there’s no confusion in my mind what instrument I play. But it was cool, something different. I’d played drums forever, and this added something new. I could write lyrics, things I’d never done before. It was just fun. But Zac plays in the band Tycho, which is a huge instrumental band that was just nominated for a Grammy. So that’s why we don’t have a lot of time to play together. We’re always going to be friends, so….
MD: So have you been doing any singing since?
Jess: No. Nope.
MD: Well, keep it in your back pocket, because you sounded good.
Jess: I don’t think it’s my calling. I mean, you’re being very nice, but I don’t necessarily agree. [laughs] I do appreciate the compliment.
MD: Let’s talk a little more about specific songs on the Chelsea record. When the drums enter on “Vex,” at first I thought, “Oh, this song has a drum machine on it,” maybe because your bass drum pattern is this really insistent 16th-note pattern. But then I heard the hi-hats opening a little and I was like, “No, no, this is live drumming.” Can you talk a little about that song?
Jess: That song was one of the first we jammed on. At first Chelsea and I were going to do a side project together, and that was going to be for that. But then the more songs we jammed on, it quickly turned into, Oh, we should play together for real. So that song has definitely evolved from how it started to what you hear on the record.
Something that Kurt was very good about in the studio was knowing when the drums should have a sort of muffled, almost drum machine tone, versus and open, boomy live room sound. And that was such a tight, drum-machine-like beat that it made sense to muffle everything and, like you said, once the hi-hats open, the song sort of opens too. I think we might have even changed the snare for that part for when it opens up too.
It was really nice to have enough time in the studio to play around with that sort of thing. You know how you end up playing around with amps in the studio all day long? Well, I never had the opportunity to do that with drums until this experience. With this album, we had a month in the studio, and I’m used to having three days to play the songs. And that’s totally changed, from now on, all my studio experiences. Even if I don’t have all that time at my disposal, I’ll take the time to tune differently and experiment with the kit. And that’s definitely one of the songs where that shines. So this was a dream. You know, I didn’t want song number seven to sound tired, which can happen. We’d be like, Okay, let’s just pick up tomorrow. So on every song I had energy, which was great.
Everything in my mind had to be as perfect as it could be, even if that’s an impossible thing to ask for. So demoing the songs first…my boyfriend has a studio, so I went in there with him to write the beats and figure out the tones so that when we went in with Kurt, I was ready. I ended up having more time than I needed for the recording, so it was awesome.
MD: Can you talk specifically about what gear you used for the recording, and how that may or may not have differed from what you play live?
Jess: Live I was playing this company called Rocket Shells. They make custom carbon-fiber drums. It’s actually where I work—it’s where I’m at now. The cool thing is that the snare I play is predominantly the snare that you hear on the record. And we did blind tests of all the snares—we’d record a snippet of each snare and see which one worked with each song, and it was almost always the Rocket Shells drum that worked the best. So I was pretty stoked about that. But on the record I really wanted bigger drums than I had. I had a 20″ live, so I used a 22″ Tama. On tour I’m actually using a Tama bubinga kit, with 13″ and 16″ toms and a 22″ bass drum. My cymbals on the record were Zildjians, including a 23″ Sweet ride and an 18″ Rock crash.
MD: What’s your background in drumming? Did you take lessons when you were younger?
Jess: I started playing when I was around six or seven. I’m thirty-five now. I didn’t take lessons then, I was totally self-taught, though I spent so much time playing in the garage, and playing along to your favorite drummers is like the best kind of class you can take. I took band in high school but totally hated it.
Jess: I got put in a class where the drummer was a year older than me and was in the band the previous year, and he just never let me play anything. He was really good, and I was probably intimidated. But I think he stifled my enjoyment a little. But also, my first band was when I was fourteen, and playing with other people is definitely going to accelerate your skills really quickly. That’s when you learn to write and play off other people. So I tell that to all my students: Get together with friends, and start jamming.