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December 08, 2017

Jojo Mayer Drums His Way To The Percussion-Loving Shores Of India

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

The ace drummer, along with his electronica trio Nerve, will perform at Bengaluru’s blueFROG tonight

My fixation when Jojo Mayer’s music began in my late teens when I listened to AC/DC’s Bon Scott softly say ‘Let there be drums’ before launching into the high-octane bridge of Let There Be Rock. The music fiend in me decided that my journey to becoming a consummate rock ‘n’ roll girl would be incomplete if I didn’t have adequate (if not complete) knowledge of one of its primary instruments — the drums. This is where I launched into a full-blown research of the most epic drummers in the world; in fact, those were exactly what my keywords on YouTube read. As it goes with the internet, I was soon spiraling down a rabbit hole of videos till I finally stumbled across a drummer who made the arduous activity look like a piece of cake — I had found ace musician Jojo Mayer.

Mayer has been a  favourite ever since, and I’ve followed his career trajectory closely, so when blueFROG (Bengaluru) announced that they were bringing him to India along with his electronica trio Nerve, I all but flipped the table out of excitement. Subsequently, I calmed myself enough to pen down some of the most burning questions I’ve always wanted to ask the man behind the shaggy hair and the penetrating gaze.

What possessed you to take to the drums at the tender age of two?
I would attribute it to pre-natal instincts. My mother went to my dad’s gigs up until she was nine months pregnant. There would be all sorts of instruments strewn around the house and as a toddler, I was naturally drawn to the biggest contraption, which happened to be percussion paraphernalia. I could just bang out rhythms along with the music without having to study scales or proper posture. That’s where it all started.

Who were your teachers during your formative years?
I didn’t have any idols at the beginning. I relied on my eyes and ears to tutor me because I knew I could learn from them for as long as I lived.

What was your first important concert?
It would have to be my first public performance at the age of two even though it is such a hazy memory.

What was your first recording in a music studio?
It happened at a studio in Switzerland when I was 15. Although I was well acquainted with different genres of music, and had mastered various techniques, I was very nervous, and that anxiety manifested itself through my recording. I didn’t have a sound understanding of how to make things work in a studio environment so it all ended up sounding pretty shoddy. Eventually, they had to call someone to redo it.

Who are your musical influences?
I’m going to have to take a long breath for this one. The Beatles, Miles Davis, Gustav Mahler, Weather Report, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Tony Williams, Joaõ Gilberto — the list is endless and continues to grow.

 What have been some of your most memorable concerts?
Weather Report in 1976 and The Tony Williams Lifetime in 1980, both in Zürich. I try not to remember my own concerts because I end up overanalysing them.

What styles of music do you listen to?
I don’t particularly care about styles. I’m only interested in hearing music in whatever rudimentary shape it exists. It fascinates me to hear something good that I can’t categorise — it’s actually one of my all-time favourite things to do.

Could you suggest a few tips to improve one’s techniques?
When it comes to your hands, it’s very important to understand the laws of physics as they apply to your playing. Learn how to make the stick or pedal do the work for you instead of the other way around. Same goes for footwork. It’s all about working on your inner hearing and relaxing — a tense mind cannot drum.

Who are your top three drummers and why?
Tony Williams because he broke my heart completely and I could identify with his artistic claim. He was probably one of the greatest musicians that ever lived. Then there’s Ringo (Starr) who co-wrote one of my favourite books on popular music. Deantoni Parks is like a breath of fresh air in the industry and a true compatriot in our venture into the unknown.

 If you could invite any of the greats to be part of your band, whom would you pick?
John Davis on bass, Jacob Bergson on the keys and Aaron Nevezie on the sound. I’ve basically just named the members of Nerve, haven’t I? What can I say — I’m already making music with my dream band.

Is there a particular technique you would like to experiment with on the drums?
There are many things I have not yet mastered but none of them are of a technical nature or urgency. My priorities today are more conceptual and emotional.

Tell us about the inception of Nerve and where you’d like to see it go.
Nerve came out of a party event in NYC during the late 90s called Prohibited Beatz. It was a cross-cultural platform I created in order to experiment with junctures between DJ culture and live music. The idea was, and still is, to create new syntax.

This your first time playing in India. What are your expectations from the audience here?
India is a place with a rich musical culture, and I’ve been led to believe that I have many fans here. Such a thriving environment is a privilege for any artist to play in.

What is your message to young drummers who are just starting out?
“Be a musician, not just a drummer. Be an artist, not just a musician. Aim at peoples hearts, not just their wallets.”

Are there any new artists in whom you see potential?
What does new mean these days? Two months? Two years? In popular music culture, I think James Blake and Kendrick Lamar have steadily provided new impulses since they sprung onto the scene.

How has the internet affected the music industry, according to you?
“The internet has created more noise. The noise to signal ratio has expanded. There’s probably more fantastic music out there than ever before but it’s obscured in a sea of mediocracy. As far as I’m concerned, the music business is over. Great musical innovation has stopped emerging from within the industry. What now exists are tens of thousands of independent, microscopic creative cells and agents around the world trying to find a way to obtain critical mass. This is very challenging with the speed of the technological age as that mass needs time. Personally, the internet has helped me exist without a record label. Nobody tells me what to do. I interact with my fans directly. I guess we’ll have to play it by ear and see where it goes. Honestly, I’m not concerned with plagiarism. If anything, it is a compliment.”

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