Monday, August 23, 2010
Drummer to drummer: Vaz's Jeff Mooridian, Jr.
"They've Won" by Vaz, from Dying to Meet You (Gold Standard Laboratories, 2005)
As you may have gleaned from my last post, I've been listening to a lot of Vaz lately. (For the uninitiated, Vaz is an extremely ominous Brooklyn noise-pop band, spun off from the revered and semi-defunct ’90s outfit Hammerhead.) Another recent trend is that I haven't been drumming as much as I'd like. My band is on an involuntary hiatus due to some chronic wrist soreness that's currently afflicting our bassist—not sure if it's technically tendonitis, but it's that general sort of thing—and I've had a hard time getting motivated to go play on my own. Over the past few days, though, all the Vaz intake has had a galvanizing effect: I knew I had to go in to the practice room and try to play some of this stuff.
To say that executing Vaz beats is outside my comfort zone as a drummer is a vast understatement. Slow and mid- tempos are pretty much where I excel. Even when I'm playing complex music, I like to get behind the beat and really relax in the manner of Levon Helm, Black Sabbath's Bill Ward and Jean-Paul Gaster from Clutch, and it's just not that easy to do this when you're playing at a breakneck tempo. I've always been in awe of punk players (i.e., a drummer named Alex Mooney, who played for my friends' high-school band, The Crackbabies) who can impart a sense of groove to those scampering rhythms.
When you're talking about the marriage of groove and velocity, the drummer you really need to examine is Vaz's Jeff Mooridian, Jr. (a.k.a. Deft Garlands and Bruce Museum). I've seen Mooridian play many times over the past six years or so, having shared bills with Vaz a number of times as part of both STATS and Aa. And I've gone through various periods of obsession with the Vaz discography. I don't think it's an exaggeration to call him one of the most intense drummers in the contemporary rock underground. I'm fully behind the worship of Brian Chippendale and Zach Hill, but Jeff Mooridian does something that's every bit as special.
Like Chippendale and Hill, Mooridian plays way more notes than he needs to, but I wouldn't really call him a hyperbusy player like those two. You know how Papa Jo Jones is always held up as the king of the hi-hat in jazz? There are players like that in rock too, and I always pay them special mind because the hi-hat is my favorite part of the drum kit. It might sound weird, but one drummer whose hi-hat work I really admire is Fab Moretti from the Strokes. Listen to Is This It and you will hear one man's ascetic devotion to the hi-hat—he rarely strays from it during the whole record. Anyway, Mooridian is an absolute poet of the hi-hat: He uses it to fill up as much space as possible, imparting a sense of breathless, whooshing speed.
Listen to the track above, if you haven't already. (It's from the second Vaz album, a damn-near flawless document.) It's a great summary of what Mooridian does routinely with the hi-hat, namely fixate on a two-handed 16th-note feel. You'll often hear rock drummers go for this vibe during a climactic moment, but Mooridian goes there pretty much ALL THE TIME. The two-handed 16th-note feel is the bread and butter of his drumming, and the result is that Vaz songs impart a truly unique sense of velocity.
During the verse of "They've Won" (beginning after the brutal tom-heavy intro), Mooridian goes into this absolutely ridiculous hi-hat pattern that sets the tone for the whole song. I could be wrong, but having seen him play live many times, I'm pretty sure he's not traditionally schooled in any way, and thus does not avail himself of any of the insider economy-of-motion tricks that a highly trained player might employ. I'm the same way—mostly self-taught, and thus I often probably expend twice the amount of energy that I should. All I can say is that trying to play the "They've Won" verse beat last night at the proper tempo, I almost passed out after a few bars. What really kills me about the groove, though, is not just those furious hi-hats; it's the deep-pocket RELAXATION of the bass-and-snare pattern. As hurried and frantic as the hi-hat stuff is, the bass and snare sound like they're jogging in leisurely fashion. As I learned from Alex Mooney long ago, it's not enough to be able to execute a pattern; what really connotes mastery is to be able to RELAX WITHIN a pattern.
The stuttering "chorus" pattern on "They've Won" is awesome as well: a juxtaposition of two bars of the breakneck 16th-note hi-hat stuff with two bars of an 8th-note feel. I love this kind of call-and-response drum-beat architecture—something Ed Blackwell did a lot.
Anyway, the music speaks loud and clear, so I'll leave you with that now. Jeff Mooridian, Jr. will probably never appear in a drum magazine, but he deserves to be recognized for what he does: His hi-hat poetics make him unlike any other drummer on earth. In playing twice as many notes as he needs to, he creates beats that feel not just fast but sublimely urgent. I'm going to keep trying to learn to play this stuff, and even if I can't quite get to where he is, I'm sure I'll learn something.
On the discussion front, can you think of any other poets of the hi-hat, or masters of velocity/groove?