Playing stand-up drums with the Violent Femmes at Coachella in 2013.
Playing stand-up drums with the Violent Femmes at Coachella in 2013.

Confessions of a stand-up drummer

When I started to play the drum set some 40-odd years ago, I never thought that someday I'd be standing up to earn my living as a professional.

At that time, all the drummers that I admired sat down behind their collections of wood and metal to guide and power some of the most exciting bands in my-ever-expanding musical universe.

My favorites included such diverse talents as Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Don Moye, Hal Blaine, Jo Jones, Ed Blackwell, Roy Haynes, Ringo Starr and so many more masters of time and taste. The only time these players would stand up behind their drum sets was to either set them up or tear them down. I had only heard the term "stand-up" applied to comedians or to describe someone's character as a fine law-abiding citizen.

Drummers didn't stand up to perform. They played music sitting down! Standing to play wasn't allowed, or so I thought at the time.

Then I heard the music of The Velvet Underground and the gender bending earth shattering drumming of one Maureen (Moe) Tucker! She played fierce, driving beats on a snare drum, batter side turned up bass drum, and big cymbals, usually with the aid of mallets instead of sticks. Although she used such an unorthodox setup, she played with such a conviction that never let you think that there was something lacking in the drum department.

Moe's playing was peppered with a dramatic freedom and a primitive growl that whipped and slashed through melody and lyric. Her drums and her style gave me some things that
every young drummer comes to realize sooner or later: "Economy is king, and simple is best!"

Oh, and yes … she was standing up.

All of this not only made sense to me musically, but the stand-up bit fed the reason for my entrance into the showbiz world in the first accursed place. Now, I finally had some bread for my ham acting approach to performing as a percussionist with Violent Femmes.

Now, the standing up bit was an entirely different performance problem. I liked the flashy idea of not being tethered to a specific drum set realm, but by standing up, I also saw the trouble I would have trying to play a hi-hat or a bass drum. I wasn't quite sure how my ankles would take the weight and strain, so I decided to try to make the "single drum theory" work first. So for now, a snare drum and brushes would be my drum set. Now I was free to think about not only how to get the music across with such a singular drum system, but also how I could interpret the comedy and drama that was Violent Femmes music.

A drum system used to record parts of my latest record.

Since I had worked on the stage since childhood as an actor, the other guys in the band and I decided to exploit my extroverted style. I knew how to draw attention to myself as a performer, but I also knew how to give stage focus to my musical partners at any given time for effect and enhancement of the music. We decided that my compact drum world would exist downstage center at the front lip of the stage. This was, and still is, a very atypical stage position for a modern drummer to occupy, but we weren't going for a normal approach for our trio. I wanted to be "the Keith Moon of stand-up comedy drumming," and then some.

During the course of the many hours, months and years that have added up to create this thing called a career, I have been the most happy and flattered by the way my fans have stuck with me through all my different drum phases. So many musicians don't have the luxury of being accepted and encouraged to redefine their perceived normal patterns of musical behavior.

I relish my position, I'm thankful for it and I'm happy to report that I'm still standing!

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