Rick Brown has drummed in various rock outfits for many decades, including Les Batteries, Run On, V-Effect, Fish & Roses, and more recently as the vibrant sticks in 75 Dollar Bill. After seeing 75DB many more times than any other band in recent memory, I've come to think of Rick's playing as rhythmic comfort food, engaging key nodes of brain and body on a locked path to ripped sounds. Both committed and casual in his playing, Brown generously sat with me to ponder on some of the different aspects of his approach.
MORGAN VO With Les Batteries, were you all on kits playing?
RICK BROWN Yea. We'd all play other things, too. Guigou played keyboards and sax, Charles sang and played some keyboards, I sang and played some incidental percussion sometimes, some electronics. But it was basically three drumkits, and then two.
MV Did you ever incorporate your own instruments, like you're doing now with 75 Dollar Bill?
RB Um, not really. Not homemade instruments. But that's just part of a continuum to me. There are things that are in between playing normal instruments and making one's own. Like taking instruments or other devices and using them in odd ways. That's something I've always been interested in, too. Like crude MIDI devices — how to make them be useful in a musical context? There was this really goofy series of devices the Oberheim made in the, I guess... I don't know when they made them. Probably at the end of the 80s they were making these things called the Perf/x series. And they were these little weird boxes. They're MIDI processors, basically. You send a MIDI signal and they will reinterpret that and send it out as a different kind of information.
MV With a lot of specificity of control?
RB Yea. But, they're really shaky, too. So you couldn't really rely on them very well, and that was sometimes a problem... But one in particular called the Cyclone that I used — this thing was intended... I don't know what they were thinking, actually! How this thing was supposed to be marketable! (Laughs) But, basically it's an arpeggiator. In its most basic form it would take a chord that you play and can turn it into a sequence of notes. But it can do that sequence in random order or specified order. It can do a lot of layering and all these things. It can also just be a sequencer, so you can program in a melody line. And this thing allows for foot switches and different things so that you can control it. In its normal use, with a nice keyboard and a synthesizer, really it doesn't do anything useful without turning your head inside out figuring out what to do with it. 'Cause it basically just turns a nice keyboard into, like, a Casio — pre-programmed rhythms kind of thing. It's kind of dopey, but I think I did some good stuff with it. That was something I used a lot in Les Batteries, and in some of the other groups I was in. But, since you said you were interested in the "making instruments" part of what I do, I think what I said about a continuum is true. The very first band I was in, we didn't really make any instruments per se, but I played things that I found. The cymbal stand that I had was actually a dress maker's dummy. Stuck a cymbal on that. One of the other instruments we played in that group, we called The Clank. It was a really heavy piece of rusted metal that we sort of propped up on something, and then let it go, it would just go clank.
MV Both of those sound real theatrical.
RB They were very... simple. (Laughs)
MV One of the first times I really started thinking about the things that you play, I noticed that the heads of one of your mallets has this really fat sound. A really thick, cloth-wrapped sound. And that seemed really weird to me, like almost tuning a slap.
RB Well, the mallets that I use now, I would call them sort of the main thing that I make. 'Cause the [wooden] box I just found, and I didn't really do anything to it. I just figured out what I need to use to hit it to make sounds that I like. So, in my right hand I'm normally holding a big, relatively heavy, but soft mallet. That's used on the right side of that box to get bass notes and pitch notes, and not a lot of attack. I want something soft but heavy, so that it really hits it and makes it vibrate. And typically in the left, I'm hitting with something that's really hard. There's no cushioning at all, and so that... it doesn't sound like a snare, but a fairly common way of hearing what I'm doing is sort of bass drum and snare. Then the variations in the left are about how hard I hold that implement against the vibrating membrane of that side of the box. If I'm just holding that softly against it, and hitting the other side, there's this rattle caused by that thing. And so the stuff in my left [hand] usually has a bunch of stuff that will react to that, and make some buzzing sounds or whatever. I'm always fiddling with the design of those things. Making new ones because they don't last forever. (Laughs)
MV Speaking of lasting forever, it's been now two shows that I've seen — you make these shakers out of cardboard boxes and bottle caps, and they sometimes explode mid-song. (Laughs)
RB Well, you've been at special occasions! (Laughs) I certainly am not trying to make that happen. But especially one occasion really was impressive, I think it really did explode. It's cardboard and bottle caps, and it's just not gonna last forever, and I knew that. It's a little bit of a problem finding something that sounds close, so that I can continue playing that song. Because the song needs that sound.
MV Everytime it breaks open I think, Ah shit, that's another couple dozen beers to be drunk.
RB (Laughs) Well, the bottle caps are recyclable! I can put them in another box. They're easy, they don't get harmed. It's really the box that's important, finding the right size and shape box.
MV With the mallets, do you change them out a lot? From song to song, do you make a specific choice?
RB They're pretty consistent. If you're interested in that, what they actually are are these things that I found in a 99 cents store, these... I guess they're intended to be back scrubbers? They have a wooden handle, and then they have this plastic mesh stuff that you see everywhere. And the mesh is kind of... a ball of squishy plastic that's attached to that stick. I take socks and put them over that, and then using zipties I just kind of clamp it down. A nice, small sock to contain that plastic mesh and make a soft but dense thing. Sometimes a couple of socks, to really get it right. (Laughs)
MV Do you have to tune it one sock at a time?
RB Eh, I don't go that far yet... So yea, they are variable a little bit, but the structure is pretty consistent. They sound generally okay. What'll happen sometimes is the mesh clump will detach from the wood. There's usually a string that's holding it. Sometimes banging it for a few months, it will come loose, and then the whole thing is really sloppy. Then you have to either repair it or throw it away.
MV Whether you're picking instruments or making instruments, do you feel like there's a similar sensibility with what kind of timbre you're going after? Like when you were picking the maracas for the recent record [Wooden Bag], those also seem to have a sort of dullness to them. Like a plastic, tacky thing...
RB Well, I have a pretty big collection of mostly crappy maracas and shakers. Either homemade or bought somewhere at a thrift store. Hand-me-downs from someone's vacation to Mexico or whatever. So I usually carry a big bag of those around to these gigs. (Laughs) And there are certain ones that work really well for certain songs. What I've found about shakers and maracas in particular is, it's surprising how there's almost a tempo or a few different tempos that apply to that maraca. If you're going to play the song too slow, that same maraca won't work right. It's as much about that — it's really about, does it react properly at that tempo to make it sound good. It makes sense, but I was surprised when I realized how much the case that is.
MV It almost makes too much sense, like too simple of a one-to-one relationship.
RB Yea. There are ways to use the same thing and get different tempos. But, conversely, not every maraca will work on a song, and it's largely about the physics. What's inside of it, how big a cavity, all those things. The tone changes, but there's something about the physicality of the things moving in there that really affects what works tempo-wise. That's almost more important than the timbre.
MV With the rhythms that you choose and the lengths that [75 Dollar Bill] goes with them, do you think about how much energy you're going to have to use in order to get through one song?
RB It's funny. From the very beginning with Che, when we got together we just sat and played without really thinking about it. And we were surprised at ourselves for playing for forty minutes without stopping. Although, most commonly: twenty-six minutes. We record most of our rehearsals, and it became a running joke with us that we'd find the takes that we do, very often would be twenty-six minutes. Yea, it hasn't been an issue, that stamina. Except once. (Laughs) And it was a crucial thing. We were recording some stuff that's gonna come out fairly soon, and we had done three long takes of this one song. It's the one with the cardboard box shaker. Which, you know, it's a rectangular, kinda large cardboard thing that you have to really grip or hold. And I don't know what was going on with my hand, but I actually was sort of cramping up. During the third or fourth take of this thing, I realized I was about to just lose it and drop it. And I did, and it ruined a take. I was really embarrassed and concerned about it. We then taped it onto my hand. Or taped my hand onto it, and continued!
MV Did it change the sound much? (Laughs)
RB (Laughs) No! It didn't seem to affect it at all. I no longer had to grip it to shake it, and it seemed to be okay. It's actually the take we're using, the one with the tape on my hand [Beni Said, from Wood Metal Plastic Pattern Rhythm Rock, below]. But yeah, so far it hasn't been an issue really.
MV I've seen you guys a bunch, so it's not all that surprising to me — it's the thing I'm getting into when I go to see you. But do you feel like it's surprising to the audience, how long you're playing.
RB Even though I like the music we've been doing, I've been a little surprised how much positive reaction we're getting! It didn't occur to me that what we were doing was going to be as accessible as it apparently is. So, yea. I haven't perceived anybody being upset at the lengths we've... I mean, there have been a couple of times where maybe we have gone a little too far. (Laughs) There are a couple songs that we really do like to play for a long, long time. But, maybe that's not the best thing to be doing at 11:30 at night. (Laughs)
MV When you play a long song like that, how do you guys build shifts into the structure of it?
RB Well, I have to say I don't think I do that much. I am pretty static. Maybe there's some tempo fluctuations. Hopefully those are intentional and positive, rather than just slowing down and speeding up gratuitously. Che on the other hand — from the very earliest times of us playing — I've been really impressed with his ability to kind of stay playing one thing and then just add one little variation that adds some kind of tension and builds. I feel like he's been more responsible for that, for taking this fifteen minute thing that's basically one rhythm and one or two riffs, and making it something that has this structure and appeal beyond just simple repetition.
MV Do you often pick out a static position? Or is that something particular to how you play with Che?
RB A lot of stuff about this group harkens back to some of the earliest stuff that I did, at the beginning of my playing. I think as I got more experienced playing, and got to be technically a little better musician over a period of time, I think I got more ambitious. There were some bands I was in where I was pushing to do more complicated structures, and pushing myself to learn those things and make stuff like that happen. I think in particular the band Fish & Roses, and later Les Batteries, were like that, where there were more tempo and meter changes, quick turnarounds and things like that. But at the root of things, I think I really love repetition. And even though I like to play in odd meters, I like the simplicity of that repetition, the one thing for a long period of time. So it's maybe a return to that. As I said, when I started, very early I wanted to play in odd meters. But I did it in really crude and slow and simple things. My first band, we played things in 5/4 or 7/4 that I would write, and make the others play. (Laughs) But they were usually very slow, very simple to do.
MV Where were you getting that inclination from?
RB I know my true and stock answer is to say from Frank Zappa. I'm trying to think if there's some other thing, too. But it's certainly true that as a teenager I was into Zappa and The Mothers. In particular, there's a song on the album Weasels Rip My Flesh. I can't remember the title of the song, but at one point — it's a live track — and Zappa kind of haughtily starts talking to the audience, telling them how cool the band was for playing in these odd meters. It's obviously sort of making fun at one point, but he's also bragging about them. (Laughs) And I don't know... I was interested in both sides of that. It was a thing for me to go, what about these numbers besides four? That all rock and roll was in 4/4, but there's all these other numbers. I was interested in math when I was kid, too. I still love math as a beautiful thing. That side of math was what led me to be a math major in college, and the fact that that was not what the program was really teaching is why I dropped out. So it was kind of a natural — for me, as somebody who wanted to play music but didn't know what to do, and had an interest in numbers — to just start that way with one drum and the number five, and what can you do with that?
MV Did you start [playing music] later in life?
RB Yea, much later! As compared to a lot of people. When I was in college. I'd been a big music fan, but I didn't think you could just play music. A lot of people my age who are musicians were kind of turned on by the DIY aspect of punk. But I didn't really get that at the time. And I loved the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads — even that, it didn't click for me as something you could do. I still didn't think I could get up and play. But when I saw Pere Ubu, that really made sense to me.
MV What aspect of it?
RB A mixture of really basic rock and roll with these avant garde and weirdo elements. The no-keyboard synthesizer that Allen Ravenstine played meant to me, like, Oh, you don't have to be a piano player to play keyboards! You could be a scientist! (Laughs)
MV Similar appeal to the Oberheim Cyclone you were talking about before?
RB Yea, it's just a tool, you know? And David Thomas, the singer, is this big fat guy banging on stuff and playing a weird horn. It was that — starting from a rock basis, but adding all this oddity to it that really made sense to me. I mean, you know, I love what they did. I don't think they were unique — they're part of a whole tendency, I think, in rock. Roxy Music are another one, I think. In a way, a similar thing. With Eno's avowedly non-musician stance, adding his element to the band, which without him would have been a pretty normal rock band. So those were things that inspired me to start playing.
MV That idea of a scientist... there's something really experimental with 75 Dollar Bill. Not in the genre sense, but in the sense of setting something up and watching it to see what happens. That's something I get interested in a lot, that even though the structures seem really simple, they get played out for a really long time to see quite a few permutations.
RB That's especially true in the songs that... Well, I should say we sort of have two batches of music. One that's predominant on our first record Wooden Bag, is 4/4, straight ahead, a lot of shakers. It's more driving and doesn't have a rhythmic complication of any sort. And that's most of that record. We have a whole other batch of stuff that involves these odd meter things, or compound meter things, that are in 9-beat structures, or in one case 21-, or 18-, or 7-, or 13-... And that's a thing that's been consistent in music for me. I've waivered in my insistence on it (Laughs), and even my own certainty that it was a good thing to do. But I kind of can't help myself — it's sort of the core of my musical interests. When Che and I started playing together, it seemed to fit really nicely with the melodic and harmonic ideas that he wanted to play around with. He wanted rhythm, and he was not averse to that being these kind of weird ones. In those kinds of things, even in the simplest one of these, 5/4 — when I'm playing five, I'm really thinking about that two-and-three, two-and-three. Just the difference between two and three. That's almost all there is to it. It's being able to hear the duration of two, and the duration of three, without counting. Just to feel it and make that a thing. It's not quite as simple, but the next level of how to play five is actually ten, but it's to play three-three-and-four. And that's a thing that I'm really focusing on now. I want to compare that two-and-three, and that three-three-and-four. Just to hear that. That's the way I go about it. You're playing in five, but what if I play this other version of five against that, how does that work?
MV I wanted to ask you about the horns you play, too. I always thought it was funny that you as a percussionist were making horns. Do you think of horns as a percussive instrument?
RB I do think about that, although I don't really use them that way. For me, one thing that was a predecessor of this stuff that Che and I are working on was learning about the Haitian music called Rara. That music is percussion and crude horns. It's a kind of processional music that's out marching around, playing drums, and then there are these horns. There are two basic types of horns that are used, but they're both very crude and generally a single note. Some are these metal cones that are kind of blown like a trumpet. And I guess you can get a couple of notes out of them, but they're basically single note instruments. The others are these large bamboo tubes, that make these very low, throbbing sounds. But they're used in very rhythmic ways. Between players, with two or three or four people playing them, you can build up melodies by making parts against these rhythms. That's music that I've been excited to hear, and see people play more recently. I should say that the horns, these plastic funnels with a saxophone mouthpiece, which is basically one of the main types of things I have — that blue one that I use, I've had that for decades. And I've played it and have done improvising gigs with that thing for a long time. It's been part of my arsenal for quite a while. To answer your question, I didn't really think of it as a percussionist, I thought of it as a horn. David Thomas in Pere Ubu playing a horn, I certainly have to acknowledge that as a precursor. I had a clarinet in elementary school, my parents bought me one and I took some lessons. But I'm not trained on the instrument, really. V-Effect, an earlier band of mine, was a bass, drums and saxaphone group. So I've played in groups with saxaphones, and I had an alto sax — I have an alto sax! Which I think I'm going to get repaired and in working order. Horns, both normal and these crude homemade ones, are part of what Che and I do, and they're gonna be more so, I think. Well, I don't know about more so, but continuing....
MV The [horn] breaks in Wooden Bag are really interesting, 'cause those are songs that seem a lot less structured. They sound improvised to me, but I'm not sure.
RB They're improvised. (Laughs)
MV Is that a common thing that you guys do together?
RB I think those were really done intentionally to make little transition things. We do, when we're there and just jamming around, we'll blow some horns. Those things [on Wooden Bag] are us both playing saxaphones. And that's something we've talked about doing more of. It could happen, might need some work. Che knows the scales! I'm not looking at it quite that way. (Laughs)
MV Did you enjoy going on tour when you did just now?
RB Yea! We've done two short tours — last summer, in 2014, we went on the West Coast for ten days or so, and this summer we did our trip in the Appalachians. Yea, it was fun, especially this second one was a taste of really playing in different situations. Playing on stages with real PAs, and a sound man. The downside being playing relatively short sets. Our normal thing at Troost, as you know, is to play two long sets and being able to really stretch out. And when you're opening for some other band, you can't do that. We were playing half-hour, forty-five minutes. That's a different mindset. You have to figure out if you really want to play the hits or what! (Laughs)
MV It feels like, aesthetically, here you're pretty unique, but the context of New York seems pretty welcoming. Did people in other places seem to get it?
RB We didn't have any sort of bad experience along those lines. We had generally small crowds, so it's kind of hard to judge, I would say. What I will say is that everywhere, there were some people that were really into it. Maybe had some idea what they were in for when they came, but often didn't. And enjoyed it. The musicians we were playing with were generally supportive and cool about it. We played in Athens, GA, on the trip, and Athens is a big music town. It's got its whole history. Because of that, I think, there are a lot of great musicians there. There were three other bands on the bill with us, which in itself was like, Come on, four bands? Okay... Those bands were all in their different ways really excellent, and to varying degrees, really conventional. I don't mean that in a totally derogatory way, but they were adept rock bands of a couple of different sorts. And that situation wasn't ideal for us. It seemed a little odd for us to be on that bill. But again, they were all genuinely interested in what we were doing, and I enjoyed them.
MV What's been an ideal bill that you've been on?
RB Ideal is when it's just us! (Laughs) I mean, along with the guest players. That's still what feels the best so far. But it's cool playing with different people, different sorts of things. You were kind of implying that New York had a particularly welcoming situation for us, or let's say Brooklyn! (Laughs) And I get it, but there's a scene that's broader than this geography. So people we ended up playing with in different places, or who organize things, are part of a network. It's not just around here where we can be comfortable.
MV Thinking about the Troost shows, you're music has a potential to lean a lot of different ways, based on the context it's in. When you guys play at Troost and it's just you, it's a lot less tinted by anything else. Like, when you play at Issue [Project Room], you're almost walking into a space where a lot of people are interested in long endurance music, or like to think of it from structural positions...
RB Yea, the bar... Playing at Troost, what's basically a bar, you know, we can kind of think of ourselves as a bar band. We're playing these long things, maybe in 5/4 or something. Che might be playing in some Arabic mode, or not. But it's still playing at a bar, and hopefully people are grooving on it. Sometimes, they get up and dance, and that's cool! That's really fun!
MV Are there other traditions of music that you're really interested in, or have followed for a while?
RB Well, I hesitate to claim any big knowledge or expertise. But I love Afro-Cuban music. I first got into it from just moving to New York in 1975, that being a period when New York salsa was at its peak. There were these fantastic bands playing. There used to be this great club on 14th St. called Casino 14, and you could go and see two of these excellent bands play on a Friday night. I got into it from the salsa angle, but then I started to realize that behind that is the Afro-Cuban roots tradition. Never studied it, have never taken any kind of lessons in it, and I don't play that music. But I love the Cuban roots of it, the African roots of it, and also the music that's come out of it. Not so much it's current form... but there are still people doing really cool things. The band that is kind of the strongest attraction for me is Conjunto Libre, a New York group, multigenerational with this guy Manny Oquendo. These two brothers Andy and Jerry González who were younger, came up under Manny's wing and started this band together. What I loved about this band, which I had the pleasure of seeing many times in the 90s, was that they were both an experimental group, which in the context of latin music means jazz! (Laughs) They were pushing the Miles [Davis] jazz angle on one side — but another [angle], just as an important, was the deep roots, Afro-Cuban sound. They didn't walk a middle line — both of those things were happening. Both in extreme. I loved that in their music. More recently, Haitian music is something I've really been excited by. I've taken some drumming lessons and heard more and more of that music, and really love it.
MV Is there any sort of community around [New York] for that music?
RB There's quite an active Haitian cultural scene. The group that organizes the classes that I've taken is called Makandal. In a couple of different locations around New York, they have weekly classes that are open, inexpensive, and I've really enjoyed doing that. They've also organized these bigger events, and they had this thing at Roulette, where they had invited other drumming groups from Haiti, and I believe one that came from Montreal. It was kind of this summit of these groups playing traditional Vodou-based music of Haiti. A really wonderful evening of that, interesting to hear slight, regional differences. There's kind of a lot going on. The Haitian community's largely in Brooklyn, I think. Flatbush and East Flatbush. That's where you can get the best Haitian food! Which is delicious. (Laughs) That's something I want to hear more of.
© Morgan Vo 2016