Among musicians, drummers are the explorers, the tinkerers, the polymaths. They don’t just play one instrument, but dozens at the very least.
With so many jobs to hold down at the same time, drummer Dave King — best known as a member of the trio The Bad Plus — recently spoke to me about his work life. He was on his way from Chicago’s Green Mill to play the Village Vanguard with trio mates Bill Carrothers (piano) and Billy Peterson (bass). NPR Music and WBGO will webcast the group on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET.
Is being a drummer a lot of work?
In the pantheon of instruments? As someone who plays piano and also composes music, I have to say it’s a hard job. It’s one of those instruments that seems infinite. There are always so many more things to work on and so many ways to become more musical.
Then why do I have an image of drummers that’s completely the opposite of that?
Ha! Do you? That’s, of course, both funny and serious. There’s a deep ignorance of drums beyond meathead rock s—. It’s very simple to start playing, but it gets infinitely complicated. So I’ll counter the drum jokes by telling you to ask any serious musician if a band can be good when the drummer isn’t. If your drummer sucks, you suck. Like if your goalie sucks, your hockey team sucks.
As a Minnesotan, you probably know a thing or two about hockey. But what are your points of comparison about how hard it is to be a drummer in terms of the other jobs you’ve had?
I was a paperboy from the time I was 6 until I was 14. Six days a week.
Wow, how many papers even publish six days a week anymore?
Well, it was the ’70s. My father made me do it. And it made me have a strong distaste for work altogether. He was raised on a farm and he wanted us to get up early and do some work and not be lazy. I understand the point, but it really had a negative effect on me, being that young and already having to do a job that was legal.
I’m glad he didn’t make you work a job that was illegal at that age. Decades earlier, young jazz musicians would have been running numbers or something like that.
Yeah, right? My first actual job was cleaning an automotive center on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It was the worst. I lasted two days. And then the favorite of my young jobs was working at Orange Julius. Reid Anderson [bassist of The Bad Plus] would come in to get a free Orange Julius from me; we grew up together. I’d sit in the back washing dishes and I’d have my headphones on listening to records nonstop. And then a secret shopper gave me a negative customer-service rating because they said I was on the phone when they came up to buy something and I got fired.
I probably wasn’t a great worker. I have to tell you this one: I drove a delivery truck for a children’s clothing store when I graduated from high school. I was playing, practicing as much as I could, and I wasn’t living at home, so I had to get a job. I was so tired the first day I was in the truck with the supervisor that I fell asleep at the wheel. He hit me on the head with a clipboard. I was at a light, so at least I wasn’t moving. But I didn’t last long at that one, either. Do you want more of them? Or is this not going well?
Why don’t you tell me if any special skills you developed from these jobs parlayed themselves into your musical existence?
It’s funny, they’re very similar when you stack them up. I’d work jobs that took very little actual interaction with people so I could be in my own thought process. I spent time doing visualization about music and about what I wanted to do with my life and career. I was doing jazz gigs, trying to be the guy that people called for things, and learning how to do all of that, as well, but I had to have some money coming in during the day. I just didn’t want to do anything that would take any mental space away from my creative mind.
Oh, man, I’m remembering a good one. When I was in Los Angeles, I worked at Kinko’s. It was a goldmine for musicians because you can make flyers and postcards for your gigs. I got really into making these Basquiat-inspired, abstract neo-expressionist flyers that got a lot of attention for my band Happy Apple. And then I was a telemarketer selling bizarre stuff. Telemarketing is hell. I remember telling everyone this blanket would keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. And then there would be a tap on my shoulder because a supervisor had been listening to my conversation.
“This call may be monitored for quality control”?
I’m living proof.
I was wondering where you got your skills for pitching, like on your Kickstarter campaign video for the vinyl release of the Dave King Trucking Company’s Good Old Light. [There will be a new Kickstarter for the band’s second album, Adopted Highway, to be released Sept. 24.]
I’d never done a Kickstarter. So many labels are not releasing on vinyl because it’s expensive to make and to ship. I wanted to see if I could do it and, with a lot of help from fans of the band, we were able to. We got donations — I mean, fans are going to hook you up, but why would they unless you’re going to do some stuff for them? So now I have an insane amount of work to do. I’m teaching lessons. I’m doing clinics. I have eight-hour days in the studio. I’m sending out signed sticks and heads. Sixteen people ordered voicemail greetings. I’m not sure what they want, but I’ll sort of improvise them.
Has the Trucking Company been hit by fuel prices this year?
We’ll know when we hit the road. You’ve got to find new ways to do it so the music gets out to the people. The music has a little Midwestern Americana tinge to it, and so I gave the band the name “Trucking Company.” It just felt like the big 18-wheelers that roll down the highway where I grew up, so there’s a panorama to it. Actually, all of the guys in the band, and The Bad Plus, come from the Midwest.
You’re coming to New York this week with Bill Carrothers and Billy Peterson. What’s your job description in this trio?
I am the leader in that it’s my concept, I picked the guys to do it, and I’ve picked most of the tunes. It’s a standard-style trio, but we don’t play very straight-ahead; it’s more of an exploratory band. I’ve played a lot with Bill Carrothers and, night to night, things can be very unpredictable. I wanted that energy. He wanted me to use Billy Peterson, who I’d never played with. It’s been really fun. I rented a church for a day, and we recorded with the great acoustics. We’ve only played a few live shows, but we made this record. [I’ve Been Ringing You was released last year on Sunnyside.]
It’s very different than your other work. It’s such a romantic record. Are you a romantic at heart?
Well, I’m a real lover of jazz and a real lover of all music. So I always find it so funny when people think you create your art out of limitation. I create my art out of aesthetic preference; I don’t play the way I play in The Bad Plus because I can’t play other things. I grew up playing all kinds of music really seriously. My record collection is hugely inspired by straight-ahead music of all eras and so, for me, I felt like it was time to make a little more of an autumnal, noirish record.
Do you like being a leader?
I do. I’m the leader of almost everything I’ve done except for The Bad Plus, which is a three-leader band. But in leading, I’m not the iron fist. There’s responsibility to the music, but it’s … mellower. I’m expecting everyone to pull their weight. And if they don’t, it’s off to the iron mines or the telemarketers. They can go out and get a f—ing day job as far as I’m concerned.
But I take it no one has fallen asleep in the trio or at the wheel of Dave King’s Trucking Company?
Thank God, not yet. But I’ll have my clipboard ready.