Heavy Metal Be-Bop #8: Damión Reid

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As with previous HMB subject Craig Taborn, drummer Damión Reid doesn’t wear his metal fandom on his sleeve. Jazz fans know Reid as a deadly technician, whose crisp, busy, furiously grooving style perfectly complements the high-tech prog-funk aesthetic of bandleaders such as Steve Coleman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Steve Lehman. His playing often heats up to an aggressive boil, but it might make you think of cutting-edge electronica before metal. So I was intrigued when a friend tipped me off to Reid’s love of heavy music. We met up in May for a wide-ranging conversation, covering Reid’s jazz and metal drum gods, the challenges of growing up as an African-American metalhead, the pros and cons of blast beats, and more. You’ll find an excerpt below and an unabridged version at HeavyMetalBebop.com.

— Hank Shteamer

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Damión Reid with Greg Ward

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Damión Reid: So how did you get started doing these interviews?

Hank Shteamer: Well, I grew up as a metalhead in the early ’90s, and then I got deep into jazz once I got into college. For a while now, those two styles of music have made up the majority of my listening, and I just became curious about the connections between them. I started seeing jazz musicians like Craig Taborn at metal shows and thought it would be fun to talk with other people who shared my interests. On the surface, it might seem weird to link these two styles, but there are all kinds of hidden affinities.

I don’t think it’s weird, because if you look at the technical advancements that have happened over the years to the drum set, it’s a direct ascension from the foundation that most of the jazz masters laid down. So you hear a lot of metal drummers talk about Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham. Why is that? That’s because Billy Cobham had great technique—rudimental, extremely fast with a lot of cymbal strokes. Tony Williams, in my opinion, was the first person to ever play a blast beat, the first person to do snare and bass drum alternating extremely fast. Nobody else did that.

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Tony Williams

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You can’t deny that. Extreme, ferocious technique with Tony and Billy, and the same goes for Buddy, someone who just had hands out of this world. It was something you aspired to get when you played the drums. And then you look at what metal drummers did, also incorporating foot technique with that same prowess. The best ones at least have hands [Laughs]. Some drummers work primarily on their feet and their hands are crap. But you look at that ascension of technique getting better and better, and I think it all comes from the same source.

They’re both rebel musics in a way. Conceptually, where they’re coming from, the middle finger is up consistently, and I think that somebody that’s really involved in their craft, then you don’t start looking at the label of genre; you start looking at “What is your purpose as an artist?” And then this becomes universal. You respect someone that’s playing instrumental music, music with vocals, whatever; it doesn’t matter. If someone’s saying “Fuck you,” it resonates, and you respect that. So I think that’s the continuity. That’s just my opinion. I’m not saying that’s why you related the two, but that’s why I wouldn’t even blink at someone who did, because that’s what happened to me.

Because I didn’t grow up listening to metal; it was the reverse for me. I grew up in a household where my mother was a classical vocalist and pianist and did a lot of chorale and played church music and stuff, and my dad played more secular music; he was playing blues and funk and jazz. So I grew up that way, and then I went to college and started studying technique, playing more jazz, playing some pocket stuff, and then I got exposed to metal and other genres.

What was your first exposure to metal?

I heard it in high school, but I was the weirdo, because I went to private schools and hung out in a very diverse [crowd], but still all my friends were of African-American descent. So I grew up with a lot of B-boys, like pop-lockers, breakdancers, beatboxers, MCs. I loved that culture and that community, but as a drummer, I heard Living Colour . . . My cousin gave me a Living Colour tape, Time’s Up, and I just remember losing my wig, because the first song was a metal groove. [Sings thrashy intro] So “Time’s Up” came on, and I was like “What the fuck?!?” And as I got older, I heard other drummers that were laying it down, and a friend gave me a Slayer record, I forget which one. I’m not really a metalhead; I just love the music, if that makes any sense, because I didn’t grow up with [Snarly voice] Napalm Death and Slayer, and the tapes and the T-shirts. I was into hip-hop culture like that, but as a drummer, I just respected the fact that, here’s a music that lets the drums be heard.

But then the social aspect around the scene made me leery because being one of the few guys that was into that type of stuff, you got ostracized by your people and by the people that you were trying to go and hang with. You know what I mean? So it was this conundrum; you were sitting there like, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I’m over here trying to hang and check out this music, and they’re like, “Who the fuck are you, and why are you . . . ?” You feel that energy; you know what that energy is. I’m like, [Perplexed] “Damn, well, alright.” And your boys go through your tape case and they see the Slayer tape, and ask, “What are you, a devil worshipper?” “No, you douche, it’s not that!” So I just felt like I would be a lover of the instrument and just respect those that I felt really showed up to crush the instrument, and that became who I was a fan of: Those who showed up to crush. I don’t care what genre you were in, what they said you were: You were country? if you showed up and smacked the shit out of a country song and you were clean and your drums sounded good and you got a good sound, I would love you! I didn’t care if you played with, you know, Tim McGraw. It didn’t matter to me, and people thought I was crazy for that! When I say people, I mean my close friends that I grew up with. So I just kept it kind of as a quiet little thing, like [keeping my] tape case under the bed—all the tapes that had the Parental Advisory sticker on there, that you could peel off. Remember that shit? Where you could peel it off and come home and say, “Mom, this is the tape . . . “? You couldn’t do that with, like, Slayer, because the album cover itself was just as bad! [Laughs] So you had to get a dub.

I remember falling in love with Dave Lombardo just because I thought that what he did on the kit, there was some rebellion on there, but it was clean as day, and I am a fan of those types of technicians that hear the spaces in between their rhythms, the rests, if that makes any sense. Not just sheets of sound and shit. Because I heard Cobham get up to 16th notes and whip ass, and his hands just [Roars], and I’m just like, “Whoo! That’s sick.” But then Lombardo, his feet were flying, and it was just clean flurries . . . I didn’t understand why Metallica was so big. I didn’t even get it. Because I felt like, “Wow, the drummer is the guy that’s usually pushing . . . ” And I saw Slayer the last time they were here with Megadeth, at the island. Not the one with Metallica, but the one before that. I was about to go to [the Big 4] at Yankee Stadium, because I wanted to see Lombardo whip on Lars. I just wanted to see that go down. [Laughs] How are you going to get onstage . . . ? Okay, you’ve got more hits, whatever. But how are you going to physically get on that stage?

And then, Lombardo’s still the only guy that doesn’t really use triggers! Fucking awesome, and it still sounds meaty, because you’re still getting the articulation because of how he plays, technique, and also how he tunes, the type of beaters he probably goes into, multiple mics. That’s how you do it in the studio to get articulation, so why wouldn’t it work live? But triggers are just this new phenomenon. The guitar players show up with their programmed sequences for you to learn and then they want to hear them back live, so it’s just a way for them to get what they gave you on a computer sequence live. I remember hearing—I forget the drummer that plays for Megadeth now. He’s a real clean cat, plays his parts very well. I had no arguments, but when Lombardo came up there, Lombardo was playing all these fills, just whipping on the kit. And I was arguing with a bass player before the gig came on. He was telling me that [ex–Mars Volta drummer] Thomas Pridgen played too many fills, right? And I said, “Yeah, but Thomas Pridgen has a great facility and he has a good beat, and I feel like even when he does lay into it, the shit feels sick and his fills feel like they’re in the pocket.” He’s like, “Yeah, but you’re supposed to play the song.” After Slayer’s set, I’m sitting there looking at him, like, “What did Lombardo just do?” It didn’t sound nothing like the record. He played his parts from the record, but he was just whipping on the kit. I love it. And he seems to be an open-minded guy because of his collaborations he’s done with other musicians that are improvisers and stuff, and that really opened my heart too.

When I moved here another group that I fell in love with that finally took me over into total drum geekdom was Meshuggah. I just lost my shit. I’m going to see them this month; I’ll be there. I gotta go. But when I heard Meshuggah, the first thing I thought was, “Okay, here’s this ferocious band”—Cookie Monster vocals is the joke that me and my friends have—but the rhythm, right? It just reminded me of almost like some Steve Coleman–esque stuff, and I said, “Damn! This is ridiculous.”

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Steve Coleman – “Black Phonemics”

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But they’re playing it hard. So I started to get into Thomas Haake, and I started to really check his stuff out and just see what he was up to, and he just seemed like a cool dude, loved playing the kit, real technical, and it just opened my mind up. The community has changed within the jazz drum circuit. I would hear about how all these drummers talked about one another, how they all subbed for each other’s bands, I was like, “Wow, it’s still all music to everybody.” I’ve always wanted to be a part of a community that was kind of like that, so I started having some second-guessing about whether I was in the right genre, because I just didn’t feel the camaraderie in a way. I felt like the love for being with a group of people and making music is what it’s about. I feel like that’s the utopia, and I didn’t feel like that’s what was really occurring as much [in jazz].

But the music came out of social conditions, and I feel like metal came out of a social condition, out of the “Damn this; I won’t do it; it doesn’t make any sense to me.” And people that were writing about these existential things, and nothingness and very high philosophical concepts about “Who are we?” and “What is this?” and things like that, and atheists and agnostics and things like that, which makes sense. And then I was like, “Okay, these are the same questions that people were having playing [jazz] in the ’60s and ’50s, because there was so much bullshit going on with civil rights.” That’s why the music had so much depth and energy to it. It wasn’t just because of the fact that these guys were brilliant artists, it was because of the shit that they had to deal with before they got onstage. And I feel like when you hear about some of these metal bands, these guys go and work in machine shops and lumber yards just to make rent, and then they show up, practice together because they love each other as a squad, get onstage and you feel that. That is lacking, I feel. And that’s why I started keeping an ear to the ground about what was happening in metal.

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Damión Reid with Harvey Valdes

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Any other specific metal drummers that you love?

Mike Smith floored me, the dude from Suffocation.

Who’s not in the band anymore . . .

What?!

[Brief discussion of Suffocation drama]

I thought the shit was programmed because it was so vicious. And I just remember seeing a live video of Mike Smith and my jaw hit the ground. I feel like what he did for that genre, I’ve never seen anybody do—ambidextrous with it too, just killing it for 45 minutes. And it’s not tense; it’s just relaxed. He has technique that gets it out.

Have you ever tried playing blast beats?

I’ve used a little bit of it. I used a little bit of it on Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut record. There’s a song called “This Ain’t in Book 3,” and he specifically came to me and said, “I want you to use a blast beat, but I want you to manipulate it according to my phrases and improvise with it as I phrase the melody.” So I learned the melody; I learned the harmonic rhythm. And he was like, “Basically blast through it, but arc it with the music.” And I said, “That’s kind of raw! You’re sure about this?” [Laughs] And he said, “Yeah, man—I want you to blast!” For me, that’s why I dig it, as a technical [tool]. I’ve tried playing it, and I like playing it, but the thing is, it is static and it does take endurance, and it does take a certain technique to really pull it off effectively and also consistently. But I could see people’s musical quarrel with it, because it’s not as musical as obviously hearing some sort of polyrhythmic things coming from the kick and the snare and the cymbal, and different things that make me headbang. I think most people would nod their head to that stuff more. Whereas the blast beat is just kind of like, you’re leaning back and your eyes are bugged out, and you’re sitting there in shock. But I like it because it’s rebellion; it’s a straight “F-you” to the whole thing. But there’s a technical element about it that just floors me, because you’re consistantly keeping these notes on this grid. It’s not like you’re just playing some free roll until you run out of steam. You’re holding that until a certain part, and then you have to shift and shift, so it’s technical. I get it, but I also understand why it forces some people to lose concentration, and also it gets boring. Just me personally, I can’t listen to an entire record of blast.

But I feel it’s more what the blast beat represents, and that’s why I said that Tony was the first person to do it. I feel like it was more a sound that he was going for. Because he obviously likes the sound of a clean roll, and to hear it oscillating like that between snare, kick, snare, kick, and then the cymbal that accentuates it, it brings this effect to maybe propel a song, or push a song to another level. That’s why I like it, for the effect. But as the actual essence of your band? That’s rough to me, which is why I couldn’t listen to Suffocation’s music the whole way through. I would listen to a few songs, and just be sitting there like, “He’s really playing this!” I have to think it’s just the wow factor for me. But all that’s to say, it’s not the same as other albums that I would listen to from top to bottom, just because I know each song has this . . . Chaosphere, today I could put that shit on and let it rock from top to bottom, even to that little weird, backwards condensed interlude that they have at the end. I can listen to that all the way to the end, and sometimes I’m even patient enough on the train ride to listen through that static [at the end], but sometimes it’s annoying, and I turn it off.

But I feel like maybe that’s people’s problem with the blast beat, that it’s just technical ability, and that’s true; it’s just one technique. It’s like someone that can jump really high and dunk the ball. Can you make a jump shot? Do you have footwork? Can you play the post? Can you make free throws? Can you do a lay-up with your left hand? After a while you’re like, “Okay, you can dunk.” And somebody that does that is obviously someone that can jump 45 inches vertical and has the windmill or whatever; they can dunk. That’s how I look at the blast beat; their legs are extremely gifted in holding this rhythm, and they’ve trained their fingers and wrists just to stay . . . It’s almost like a nervous twitch that they control. It’s like a knockout punch. It’s like, you know how to do it, but can you box?

Do you tend to talk about metal with other jazz musicians?

No—only the guys that are very open-minded. I think some people think that metal is actually simplistic because of its harmonic density, because its not as dense. So I feel like a lot of musicians look at it as just a drummer’s haven. They’re like, “Oh yeah, you drummers like that.” Or [Nerdy voice], “Oh yeah, I liked metal when I was in high school.” A lot of people say that. But I think the reason why I leaned toward liking it a little more is that I just respected what was being executed on the kit. There’s people that respect it from a rhythmic standpoint, but most people just think it’s a bunch of Satanists yelling like buffoons, and they feel it’s for high school people.

How do you feel about the Satanic aspects of metal?

I was raised in a very religious family. It was more about the congregation—the unity and the concept of church. But I’m not into any titles about who has what religion. I feel like that’s half the problems in the world today. I don’t feel any way about it at all. When I show up at church and my mom wants me to play, I just play. It’s just a social thing. I feel like they’re actually one and the same: When people show up to that metal concert, they’re showing up to congregate. That’s church for them. They show up and express themselves, and the world has got a foot on their neck; somebody’s oppressing them; they don’t like the fact that this is happening and that’s happening. And they come to that concert to let it out; that’s why people mosh. Same physical human reaction; I think it’s directly connected. We’re all humans. So if people in the church want to shout and dance, that was a social haven just for the African-American community because there was no other place where you could be free and talk freely about stuff because you would be on a fucking tree tomorrow. So that’s where you went to talk and express yourself and let the stress of the world leave your shoulders. So now, okay, we might not end up on trees as often but we still need a place.

Whenever I would hear those bands, I wouldn’t actually go in that dark way; I wouldn’t get scared. Unless . . . See some of the audiences were [behaving] in a way that I knew that me showing up, just who I was, it was going to be mayhem. But what I saw was a certain willingness to try and be something that you weren’t seeing every day with folks. You were seeing people that were living this perfect life, doing what they were told. And this group of people were just finally saying, “No, I don’t agree; it doesn’t make sense.” And what’s wrong with people that say that? Because most of the time, it doesn’t make sense.