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Friday, February 16, 2024

“Give The Brummer Some” – An Encounter with Ches Smith

Ches Smith @ Festival Sons d’Hiver – Paris, January 2024. (c) Margaux Rodrigues

Alas, fate had other plans for former-pizza-maker turned pro-brummer/congwriter, Ches Smith. When the pizza place relocated, the owners announced to their beloved employees that the moving process could take a while. If anyone wanted to pursue alternative career paths, “Perhaps now would be a good time.”

With a glint in his eye and a gentle smile, Ches speaks fondly of his time working at Escape from New York Pizza, recalling the good old days with waves of nostalgia. One might think he almost regretted his decision to follow the path of "professional musician."

An in-joke from this era, quoted from a colleague in the kitchen, inspired the very title of Laugh Ash, his latest album released February 2, 2024. 
With a similar fondness, he chats about the recording process with a different team of workmates, and the inspiration and gusto each band member brought to the project:

“Everyone was so great – really threw down with the music and all that. [The strings] would just sit there and shed their parts together. And when James [Brandon Lewis] would come over and look at stuff, where he’d call me, it felt good. Shahzad totally too. And he can be a bit of a wild card, but he just was like, 'Yeah, let's do this.' He really learned the music.” The full roster of Laugh Ash’s blockbuster lineup includes a total of ten extraordinarily talented musicians, the coordination and recording of which was indeed serious business. The recurring theme of catering for the massive ensemble, however, became something of a running gag.

“I ordered, like, WAY too much food each day. It kinda got funny when there was like 40,000 pounds of sushi one day. Then, seriously, like 20 pizzas. And people were like, 'I don't think we can eat all this, man.' I just like to make people have a good time.”

And that he does at the very least through the display of his extraordinary talent on the skins.

To watch Ches play live is nothing short of exhilarating. In the constellation of Marc Ribot’s rough and punky Ceramic Dog , cymbals adjusted sky high allow for harder hits, resulting in not only a louder crash, but a noodley spectacle of long flailing limbs. Over the course of the recent European tour, six snare heads were destroyed. He is also known for his "1000 faces" – animated, rubbery, and cartoony facial gestures amplified by the occasional tilting of his long neck. It’s always an endearing, passionate performance: professional, but with a goofy-twist. A bit like Napoleon Dynamite when he’s dancing.

He’s looking remarkably youthful and healthy. Perhaps this can be traced to a relatively clean, mostly vegetarian/pescatarian lifestyle, and a tendency to avoid drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol, especially on tour. After performances, however, open Red Bulls and half-drunk coffee cups can be found scattered around the drum kit. Ches’s energy levels are always somewhere on the border between falling asleep on his feet and hyper focused, almost certainly as a result of over-caffeination. “I’m just gonna fill this up,” he commentates at breakfast while placing a mug under the coffee machine, and hitting the double-espresso button a grand total of three times. Maybe this is the secret to his success.

And if it’s any measure of that success to name his collaborators, here are just a few: Tim Berne, Mary Halvorson, Bill Frisell, Trey Spruance, Jamie Stewart, Sean Ono Lennon, John Zorn … Regardless, It is pointless to try and list all the prominent musicians Ches has worked with. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that he has worked with them all. Suffice to say, he does not experience the sensation of being “star struck,” or at least he hasn’t done so since 1999.

“I didn’t expect it, but when I talked to Ian MacKaye [Fugazi], I was super weird, because I had that feeling… I guess starstruck for someone I had admired from afar, but I didn’t realise it until I came into contact with him. That’s the last time I remember, it’s possible there was another, because that’s a long time ago.”

The Haitian drumming scene however, still causes him some degree of intimidation: “These master drummers that I’m playing with grew up in the tradition, and I’m coming at it from the outside… I don’t do it enough, I think. I wish I could spend a lot more time, but I really have to do all this other music too.“ 

Ches fell into the Haitian scene by accident, after a stand-in was required at a graduate school dance class. His paleness, thankfully overlooked, Ches describes the moment as something like: “Hang on - we can work with this.” It was love at first thump, and ever since that day, his passion has developed into a borderline addiction, sometimes catching himself making up excuses to cover up his sneaking out to go “Vodou” drumming. Never a man to do things by halves, Ches’s study of Haitian culture has even gone as far as learning the language of Haitian Creole – this effort of assimilation in turn earning him a deep level of respect and trust from Haitians worldwide, multiple true friendships, and even a god-daughter. But for someone as committed as Smith, it’s never quite enough: “Last week, I almost gave up Haitian drumming forever. The amount of practice and commitment required to be at the level I want to be at… [but] I’m not going to quit. It's been a while since I played [a ceremony]… It’s something you have to be in shape for, for sure.”

It’s quite a unique situation: one minute performing a Zorn-composed opera piece alongside Barbara Hannigan at the packed out Paris Philharmonic, the next minute immediately Ubering across town, sneaking out to go Haitian drumming (again) in a private, seven-person, Vodou ceremony in a Paris basement. The Haitian preoccupation manifests across the spectrum of Ches’s work, notably his We All Break project, (featuring Matt Mitchell, Nick Duston, and Markus Schwartz to name a few). The compositions draw heavily from traditional Haitian instrumentation, vocals, and rhythms, but are tastefully blended with piano and other "western" accompaniments.

Ches finds ways of incorporating diversity wherever possible, even amongst the rapid-fire genre switching pieces by John Zorn: the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, minute long, machine gun works, for example: “In those small bursts, I try to include that [the Haitian influences] as much as I can.” Taking part in a huge number of eclectic collaborations, and never one to shy away from the role of frontman, some of his most notable projects include the percussive Congs For Brums , the experimental These Arches, and the impressive post-covid combo of Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn, Matt Mineri on Interpret it Well. The cover art for which is a sketch by none other than artist Raymond Pettibon, famous for his work with Black Flag, and his almost comically iconic Sonic Youth’s “Goo” album cover. Ches humbly remarks: “We couldn’t believe we were allowed to use it.”

Matt Hollenberg once stated his theory that drummers can take on more projects because they "don’t have to worry about notes." “Oh yeah, that's true,” agrees Ches, “I think you can memorise more music – I find it easier to memorise music when I'm playing drums than vibes, for instance, but there are other challenges. I think it all ends up being the same.” Once declaring that he was “looking forward to playing more jazz and less of that classical shit,” he now officially retracts this statement. Ches Smith would like to clarify that he believes classical music is not shit: ”I think I was talking about the amount of dense music I had to have in my head [at the time]. I think after concert after concert of that, it's nice to just kind of swing. That's what I felt I probably meant. Sometimes I say things in a ham-fisted kind of way.”

Further traces of Ches’ ham-fisting can be found scattered around his discography, with songs and album titles such as: “Hammered”, “My Motherfuckin Roda!”, or “Speak Up If You Hate This”. So what is it that drives a man to label a serious tune “The Most Fucked”? “[It was] a kind of version of what I was trying to do, like there were versions where it was super streamlined. You know, without all that shit going on… [That title] just stuck.”

Festival Sons d’Hiver – Paris, January 2024. (c) Margaux Rodrigues

With the Big Ears Festival on the horizon, the brummer can be found playing in no less than four supergroups: Ceramic Dog, Laugh Ash, Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant avec Folie à Quatre, and Secret Chiefs 3.

On reuniting with Secret Chiefs 3: “I’m looking forward to it. I was just relearning the music today and it kind of all came back really fast, and it's a lot of tunes I've played a lot, but it's just been a long time. I'm glad Shahzad’s back in it, too. And Shanir [Ezra Blumenkranz] together. There's like two on every instrument: Kenny Grohowski and myself, Shahzad and Shanir, Matt [Hollenberg] and Trey [Spruance]... It's fun. It’s really a fun band to play in.“

According to Ches, there’s two things in life that he was born to do: play the drums and be a dad. A devoted husband and father of one, he can often be found juggling meetings and commitments abroad with simultaneous phone calls back home. His passion for his little family clearly runs deep, as he frequently recalls family-related anecdotes amongst his everyday conversations. Although he relishes the natural excitement of touring, the underlying desire to return home and be with them is omnipresent. In terms of priority, “family” always dominates.

Having said that, he did maybe tell a teeny tiny fib to the love of his life about buying a full octave-and-a-half set of orchestral bells. “I told her I was not gonna buy them. And then suddenly there were just…” he trails off. “[John] Zorn was using them more than once. I kept having to borrow them from Kenny Wollesen and I found a set that I could afford, and I was like, ’I'm just doing this.’ But everyone thinks it's completely ridiculous. It’s like the heaviest instrument I own, easily. It’s like metal bars and a huge frame with a pedal.”

In this all-too serious world, it’s refreshing to know that artists like Ches are out there keeping it fun. God knows, the scene could certainly benefit from an occasional injection of humour. But what does the future hold, and where does he see himself in 5 years time?

“I wanna be the first legacy artist on Bandcamp'… I said that? That was a joke, man.
… but I do see myself as a legacy artist on Bandcamp.”

Additional Bandcamp links: