Rock Steady: Kanaan Drummer Ingvald André Vassbø Discusses New Album “Earthbound”
One of my favorite parts of being a drummer is the way the greater community celebrates the craft of drumming. A passionate drummer is always going to stop and take notice of excellent drumming, the artistry of which transcends both genre and context. It doesn’t matter to what end the drummer is applying their talents—so long as they’re doing so artfully and meaningfully, other drummers will absorb it, appreciate it, and respect it.
This is how I felt as soon as I started watching this live video of instrumental psych-fuzz trio Kanaan cruising through their song “Bourdon” at Amper Tone. The band as a unit is completely dialed in, but it’s impossible to escape the gravity of drummer Ingvald André Vassbø as he leads the song from its initial murmuring simmer to a cresting apex and surging tempest, his limbs a constant whirl of ghost notes and syncopated accents behind his flailing cymbals and fluttering hats.
One of my other favorite parts of being a drummer is nerding out about the minutiae of drumming with other drummers who also enjoy wrenching apart their respective process and dissecting the ways we all approach the instrument—and fortunately, Ingvald was all too happy to engage with me in this at length.
Slap Kanaan’s recent full-length Earthbound on and dive into our massive drum chat right here.
What was your original introduction to playing music? Did you start out as a drummer way back when? And regarding your background in drumming, were you taking lessons or are you largely self-taught?
My introduction to playing music was through learning drums in the local public music school in my hometown of Egersund. I think I was about eight years old when I started taking lessons and also started playing in a local school marching band. I also played in a lot of different local rock bands and learnt a lot about working together with others in a band context during those years.
When I grew a little bit older, I started at Vågen VGS, which is a high school with a three-year music course. There, I became interested in all kinds of music, and I learnt a lot about the value of versatility and open-mindedness when it comes to approaching new forms of music and drumming.
After high school, I studied for one year at the jazz program at Sund Folkehøgskole in Inderøy, and thereafter I studied for one year at the Norwegian Academy of music. I learnt a lot from my great teachers—Pål Thowsen, a legendary Norwegian jazz and pop drummer, and Thomas Strønen, who is a remarkable ECM artist who must be one of my favorite jazz drummers ever.
Studying in Oslo was great, but for a long time I had really wanted to go to the jazz academy in Trondheim, so after a year in Oslo I left and studied for three years there. Finishing my bachelor’s degree in jazz music in 2019, I have had the pleasure of taking lessons with some of the best drummers and pedagogs in Norway.
Ernst Wiggo Sandbakk, jazz legend and author of the bestselling Hvordan Spille Moderne Trommesett (How to Play Contemporary Drum Kit) was one of them. Norwegian free-improvisational drum guru Tor Haugerud, Håkon Mjåseth Johansen, one of the hippest jazz-drummers in Norway, and also Thomas Järmyr—the drummer from Motorpsycho—were some of the teachers I had there.
I’ve always liked to practice on my own and explore the possibilities of the drum kit, and I'm really happy for all the help I’ve gotten from all the inspiring teachers I've had for the last twenty years.
It’s immediately obvious watching you play that you’ve got a jazz background. And looking through your live videos, you’ve undergone a few setup changes over the years. What are you currently playing, and what is your thought process behind kit setup? How has your setup evolved to its current iteration?
Well, I’m actually mostly borrowing house-backline when I'm playing around. Even though you can't expect a super-high standard and top-notch drums everywhere you go, you can be sure that there are different sonic possibilities and inspiration to find in any—even the most trashy—drum kit, room and backline in general. At least for where I find myself as a musician right now, I find much inspiration in this spontaneity.
But of course, I do have some preferences. I recently bought a vintage Ludwig Blue Oyster kit from the 70s, which must be one of the most well-sounding and versatile drums I’ve ever played. When I play with Kanaan, I usually play the drums wide open with no muffling or drum-gel on them. The dimensions are 13”, 16”, 18”, and a 22” kick drum.
My main ride in Kanaan is a 26” Signature Istanbul Agop ride with great stick definition and a deep and dark tone. I also use 16” Istanbul Agop Signature hi-hats, an Istanbul Origin Dark 20” ride, and a 22” Istanbul Agop 30th Signature ride.
I like dark cymbals as I often perceive them placing themselves sonically “inside” the mix instead of being “on top” of the music as I often feel that brighter cymbals do. I like the way darker cymbals can “fill out” the empty space and be crashed really hard without getting too brutal or white noise–like.
Is this the gear that you recorded with on Earthbound, or did you pick up that Ludwig kit after the album was complete?
These were the cymbals, but I used Athletic Sound Studios’s drums. Here is a picture of the setup I used on the album. A 22” kick, 13” and 16” toms, and a vintage Ludwig Supraphonic snare!
The Supraphonic snare is amazing because it has this amazing tuning range. You can tune it really, really high and it cuts through the mix in a really nice way, or you can tune it really low, muffle it, and get the fattest backbeat you could ever imagine. It's such a versatile instrument and I use it for a huge variety of music.
I picked up my own kit not so long after the Earthbound session. I think I'll use my own drums on the next Kanaan album!
There’s this tacit divide between drummers who use felt and wingnuts on top of their cymbals, and those who just let it all fly free. I’m on Team Wingnut, but you’re on the latter—what led you here? How does this choice augment or affect your playing?
I guess the reason for not using the wingnuts is the sound and feel of it. It of course depends on the cymbal and on the felt, but there are times when I can feel that the felt actually reduces the amount of overtones in the cymbal. Especially if the wing nuts are screwn too tight. It's also a feeling thing. The feeling of movement and energy, caused by the cymbals flying up and down, can work as a catalyst for a certain kind of mindset and playing style. At least for me.
Screwing the wingnuts too tight is a big no-no, you’ve gotta give the cymbals room to breathe. Can you expand on the idea of how the unrestrained cymbal motion has inspired your approach to the drums? Does this tie in at all to your preference for larger-diameter cymbals or even larger toms?
It's hard to give a definitive answer, but I guess it's also a result of habitually playing without them. I’ve grown used to the cymbals flying around a bit, and I like the feeling of it! I think it would be weird to suddenly start using really tight wing nuts or changing the setup radically.
Things like my seat height preference, cymbal diameters, and preferences in general usually change in a gradual manner. I do not think this issue has anything to do with my diameter preferences when it comes to toms and cymbal sizes.
Let’s talk about the band—how is a Kanaan song created? Do you enter the studio with a song penned down to the note, with a general framework, or simply with the intention to create?
The Kanaan songs are usually created when someone in the trio brings a riff, a melody, a concept, or any kind of musical idea to the rehearsal. We then test out the ideas, jam on them, and start to arrange and create music from there. It is a process which I feel really includes everyone in the band, and the democratic approach to songwriting and composing is something I really enjoy. Especially when we’re as aesthetically on-board with each other as we are in that particular band.
We always practice a lot before we enter the studio. All the times we’ve entered a studio to record a Kanaan studio album, we’ve been pretty sure about what songs to record and how to play them. All the songs are pretty thoroughly rehearsed when entering the studio, but we always keep an open mind to new ideas and input from, for example, the producer.
It’s happened many times that we’ve restructured tunes, played them in a completely new way, or recorded them with totally new gear or pedals, for example. Either changing our minds while working with the recording, or getting feedback and input from some of the many great producers we’ve been privileged to cooperate with.
I appreciate the way your grooves subtly accent the riffs going on with your bandmates, while not breaking the flow. How do you approach the creation of drum parts for your music?
Thank you so much! I really like when drummers manage to play in a “flowing” way which blurs the lines between static grooves and transitional fills—even though staccato-ism and a groove–fill dichotomy can be cool as well. I think that particular approach and drumming style which is more “flowing” and “enhetlig” in Norwegian (which translates poorly into “uniform” in English) as opposed to dual, is something that really drives me forward in Kanaan. Mystically speaking, it's a drumming aesthetic of oneness. Haha.
The approach to creating drum parts always differs from song to song and situation to situation. Sometimes I try to compose a lot, and other times I think it helps the music to keep the drum parts more impromptu. I always try not to take the most obvious choices, both stylistically speaking and for my own sake. It’s hard not to fall into pre-established patterns and grooves you’ve played a hundred times before—though the reason that you’ve played some grooves a hundred times before is of course because they work really well.
Nothing is intrinsically wrong about generic playing. It's just fun to check out if one can mix things up and make it more interesting before one maybe after trying and failing finds out that in this particular situation the music is enriched by generic playing.
Can you point to a moment on Earthbound that epitomizes this thought process, where you really dug deep within yourself to approach the drum part in an unconventional way?
Dug deep within myself… nice! I think I dug deep in both drawing from “external” inspirations and in a more self-aware artistic sense. On our first single from Earthbound, “Bourdon.” I tried to make a really heavy riff feel much more lightweight in a way by playing a more jazz-oriented beat on the ride. In the end, after several explosive guitar solos when it all winds up, I play a really hard, punkish backbeat on all fours kind of groove. That mixture of a more lightweight feathery groove in a really heavy context, and the hybrid between that and a more brutal and garage rock/punk style, I found original in some way!
On “Mudbound,” I play a really heavy floor tom groove, but tried to play a ostinato with my hi-hat foot on top of it to make the phrasing of the groove a little more distinct. I'm really inspired by the way the American jazz drummer Marcus Gilmore utilizes his left foot, and I tried to incorporate some of his left-foot phrasing ideas and methodology into a Kyuss/Sleep/Colour Haze–like context! I think it worked out really well.
On the last track of the album, “No Star Left Unturned,'' I play a really heavy but kind of slow blast beat. Blast beats have really strong aesthetic links and at least give me strong connotations to, for example, black metal. Eskild [Myrvoll, bass] encouraged me to do something way different than playing a straight up 6/4 stoner rock groove. He actually helped me shape a groove which was more based on a blast beat than anything else. Blackpsych.
There are some artists and bands who have done similar things with white noisey, wall of sound drum grooves and pure-out wah-wah guitar psychedelic rock and space rock improvisation, but I think there still is a lot of ground to be covered. The American band Oneida has some amazing approaches to eclectic interplay.
I always appreciate that the other guys in the band have creative ideas for the drum parts as well. When they suggest ways that I could play, I often go into a sceptical mindset at first, but when I try out the ideas, I often find them helping me to think outside the box. Eskild, our bass player, is also a fucking great space rock drummer! Give this man a band!
Getting into the drumming weeds now—what’s your typical practice routine like? Are you a big metronome advocate?
My practice varies a lot, and my routine depends if I’m on tour or at home in Oslo, and if I’m preparing for a session or just playing for fun. I usually make my upcoming band projects the mission of my practicing alone. I often experiment with the grooves I’m planning to play at a concert or in the studio with someone, and see in how many ways I can create variations upon one single groove, for example.
Can you play the hi-hat pattern with the right foot? Can you play polyrhythms with your left foot while keeping the groove in your three other limbs? Can you play it ten times as fast? Can you play it ten times as slow? Harder? Softer? I really like experimenting in this way because with this method, I can explore really far and wide, sonically speaking, but also keep all my explorations related to the musical material I'm currently working with!
At least that's been my practice approach lately.
I also love playing along with records. Can you lock with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison while having a Coltrane record on your headset? Can you accompany Chet Baker in a musical way listening to him while playing? How many phrasing possibilites are there when soloing over a Lil Ugly Mane record? There are so many ways to rehearse and play along with prerecorded music! Recommended!
Totally, and I think the diversity aspect here is massive in terms of becoming a well-rounded drummer. If you’re playing with Coltrane one day and then applying those instincts to Lil Ugly Mane, you’re sure to expand your own musical horizons simply by choosing to practice in a meaningful way.
What would you say to someone who wants to improve, but has a hard time staying focused while practicing, or who doesn’t see practice as fun? What are your mental tricks for getting over that hump?
Yes, I agree! Well, I think one has to practice in a way that works for you as an individual! There are many ways to end up at the same goal. I also think that the “versatility is key” way of thinking isn't for everyone. Some of my favorite musicians and artists are not versatile at all. They just do this one thing that they are really, really good at. Specializing. Therefore I also think that one has to find out what you'd like to learn and aim at it.
I think practicing often gets boring when you're not learning anything new. Therefore, having an open and curious mind is so important. I have some claims which look quite illogical at first, but I think it really makes sense if you think about it.
Learning to play bossa nova will inform your metal skills. Learning how to play rock and listening to all the records Bonham ever played on will make you a more conscious jazz drummer. Listening to Gnawa music will give you a new perspective on prog rock drumming. Listening to Stockhausen and Schönberg could possibly give you a lot of inspiration for your next pop-project. Listening to James Ferraro, Arca or Oneohtrix Point Never and other electronic music-radicals will make you a better punk rock songwriter.
Don't take this shit too literally. I mean… Learning one thing gives you perspective on the other things you're doing. It's all about seeing what you do from different angles and perspectives. Of course, to learn how to play technical metal music, you need to spend hours and hours practicing the double-bass pedal. There isn't any way around it.
But exploring all these other forms of expressions, and not just music, will definitely give you valuable perspectives and insights. This sounds like a stupid prosaic platitude, but seeing yourself and what you do from the outside cannot be stressed enough.
I also think mindfulness meditation, zazen or whatever you'd like to call it, is a great activity and exercise for musicians, or any human being actually. It'll help you to become aware of when your mind is distracted and make it easier for you to focus, tune in and listen to your own and your fellow musicians’ playing.
It has helped my focus and attention span a lot, and being able to tell when you're distracted is actually really, really hard. These things have a great utility and applicability to playing music and doing different kinds of art in general. I’m one of those people who is really distracted all the time and who needs some kind of methodology to make me focus better and stay more in the moment.
Whatever you’re doing seems to be working—your left foot is a rock on the hats in the live video for “Bourdon” that you shot at Amper Tone. What has been your approach to cultivating the degree of limb independence required for techniques like this, before reaching the point at which you can explore the techniques you’ve just described?
Thank you so much! Well, first of all I think that particular way of playing the hi-hat on all the eighth notes comes from Tony Williams. On many of the old Miles Davis Second Great Quintet records from the sixties, he used to play these really fast uptempo tunes with an intense and forward-pushing continuous hi-hat playing. I think that element of his playing, together with Elvin Jones’s explosive style, anticipated the drumming aesthetic of John Bonham and Bill Ward and the general rock-explosion in a really interesting way.
When I’ve been practicing independently, it's often a matter of learning to do different things on top of each other. I really, really like John Riley’s The Art of Bop Drumming book, and I would recommend it to all aspiring and expert drummers alike. All genres!
It has some really useful ostinato exercises, playing a classic jazz cymbal beat with the right hand and different melodic phrases with the left hand. It teaches you how to phrase within the bebop school in a really pedagogical way and also gives you way more flexibility and limb independence. John Riley’s Beyond Bop Drumming is also a great tool and expands on all the concepts from the first book. I think those books taught me a lot.
Growing up, the book I hated the most but also credit the most with teaching me the most was Jim Chapin’s Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer—I haven’t played Riley’s books, but the general idea seems similar. You’re given a series of patterns to play between your left hand and the kick, while maintaining the groove with your right hand.
Oh, I’m glad you found it useful even though you hated it! It can be like that sometimes. I’ve actually never looked thoroughly into the Jim Chapin methodology. One of my old drum teachers taught me to make the stick bounce, working with gravity and aligning your physiology to the laws of nature, so to speak. He also taught me the Moeller method and some other techniques I think were conceptualized by Jim Chapin.
I've been really into Jojo Mayers's Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer, where I'm pretty sure he credits Chapin for a lot of the content he's teaching. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Jim had something to do with the formulation of some of those essential hand techniques. Didn't he?
He’s such a legend! Chapin’s Moeller tutorial is one of the best introductions to the technique I’ve ever seen. And yeah, that book is legendary for a reason, right? Not easy, but massive in terms of what it’ll do for you as a drummer. I “hated” it as a kid because of how brutal it is, but I am so glad I had an instructor who introduced me to it and forced me to power through.
Traumatic memories aside—are there any specific rudiments or other patterns that you find often working their way into your playing, either consciously or subconsciously?
It has to be single strokes! I fucking love them!
Shout out a few drummers you feel are woefully underappreciated. What makes them special?
A big shoutout to...
Sara Lund, for her creative grooves, dirty sound, tight drumming and intense rock-caliber with Unwound. One of my newly discovered favorite drummers and the coolest noise rock band of all time!
James Krivchenia from Big Thief! Big Thief has become a quite big folk-rock band over the last few years, but not many people talk about his drumming. He plays the drums in such an organic and spontaneous way and definitely has his own sound and voice behind the instrument.
John Colpitts, a.k.a Kid Million for his work with Oneida. Eskild in Kanaan recommended this crazy eclectic, punk, noise rock, psych American rock collective to me last year and I was completely blown away by the raw intensity and energetic music-making of John and the other guys in Oneida.
Tor Haugerud, my old drum teacher from Trondheim, who is one of my Norwegian favorite drummers and free improvisers. I give him a shoutout because of his ability to mindfully listen and interact with his fellow improvisers and connect with his own intuition in such a special way.
Veslemøy Narvesen, for her attentive and responsive playing and the delicate touch and sound she can get from any drum kit. Listening to her band Kongle Trio live is witnessing telepathic interplay and some of the most dynamic and authentic young Nordic jazz bands I know off.
Other drummers i find to be underappreciated are Christopher Bröchmann Christensen from the Danish psych rock trio Papir, the American jazz drummer Marcus Gilmore, the German avant-gardist Christian Lillinger, John Syverson, composer and drummer for one of the coolest contemporary rock bands Daughters, Axel Skalstad for his artistry and albums with Krokofant+++, Chris Cutler for his progressive and forward-thinking aesthetic, Barry Altschul for his unique playing with Anthony Braxton, Greg Saunier for his work with Deerfhoof, Paal Nilssen—love for everything he does. There are so many greats!
Earthbound released on November 12, 2021 via Jansen Records.