SARGENT HOUSE

Flab Mag: 20 Questions with Red Sparowes Drummer Dave Clifford


Dave Clifford, Red Sparowes 

Origins:

When and why did you start playing drums?

I started playing drums in 1995… very, very late in life at the ripe old age of 25. I’d been a guitar player since I was 12-years-old (piano before that), and after getting deeply into music theory, I became really disillusioned with guitar. It quickly began to lose interest to me as anything other than a physical weapon. Many people would comment about how I was always air drumming along to music and I began to become fascinated in the primal force of rhythm after getting behind the drum kit at my band’s practice space. For a while, I snuck in late at night to play along with tapes of old Motown, soul and punk rock. I was hooked immediately.

Luckily for me, Angel Hair, one of my favorite local bands with whom I was good friends, broke up when their drummer announced he was moving away. We all got together that week and talked about starting a new band and I quickly volunteered to play drums, despite not owning my own kit, much less really knowing how to play at all. I bought a cheap drum set and we set about practicing every day for 3-4 hours and dubbing the new band The VSS. From that time on, I practiced and practiced and have developed an incessant love with drumming. Despite being a much better guitarist and bassist than drummer, it’s my favorite instrument and the transformative and transcendent feeling I get from playing drums is impossible for me to let go.

I grew up listening to classical music because the “rock” I’d heard on the radio was utterly uninteresting to me. I discovered punk rock when I was 11, and have spent my whole life trying to create music that embodies the monolithic force of classical music, combined with the primal intensity of punk. Playing drums has always felt like the best instrument on which to attempt to achieve that goal.

What, if anything, transpired to keep you playing all these years?

It’s simply an obsession that feeds itself. It’s both creative and deeply physical. I trained in karate as a kid and have been jogging daily for most of my life, so obviously the endorphin rush of physical release is a big part of my addiction to playing drums. But, while I love running, there’s a very unique feeling of creative expression tied to the physical exertion that becomes heightened when playing live with other musicians. It truly is a sense of being part of one force: with every motion of my arms and legs, there’s the sounds and movements of the others I’m playing with, and we’re creating something greater than just ourselves, something that has meaning for other people. I always aim for every show and every practice to be cathartic.

What was your first kit and how did you pay for it?

My first kit was a cheap used Pearl Export 4-piece. I think I paid $250 for everything, including hardware. I had no idea how to tune the heads and went through Aquarian Hi-Energy triple-ply heads every week before I figured out I was tuning them too low. I’ve never liked high tuned drums, but learned over time how tune them and make them last while being a pretty hard hitter.

Spec out the kit(s) you are currently playing on – if there is significance to the set-up, in terms of sound or the genre of music you are currently making, please note it as well.

I’m still playing on the second drum set I ever bought, in 1997 just before The VSS launched our first full-length album and toured for much of the year. It’s a Tama Granstar, which was made for a short period in the 80s in primarily mega-monster configurations for drummers who required approximately 2000 toms, all of equal concrete cinderblock weight. My kit is a simple 24″x16″ kick, 13″ rack, 16″ and 18″ floor tom set up. They’re very thick 3-ply birch with a distinctive “thunk” sound and very little versatility. But, they sound good for loud, heavy music. I use coated Emperor heads and Evans Genera HD Dry snare heads. I use Paiste cymbals: currently 22″ Dark Metal Ride, 20″ Signature Full Ride and 20″ Signature Crash Ride.

The significance to the set-up is basically that I’ve always attempted to find some sort of meeting point between the massive bombastic sound of the classical music I grew up listening to and the forceful rhythms of Motown, Phil Spector and The Stooges.

Myths:

What are your thoughts (philosophies or opinions) on the “natural ability” vs. “practiced player” discourse surrounding percussion?

That’s an extremely complicated notion. It is the defining characteristic of all artistic expression in general just as much as it is part of one musician versus another. We all serve a role in a collective and what matters most is how the personalities combine, really. Anyone can play drums, but it’s a matter of how much feel they bring to it as well as knowing the fundamentals of music. To really excel at drumming, you should be about 60/40 in the natural ability/practiced player equation.

I’ve heard many stories from musicians who have said they were “spiritually called” to play their instrument. Playing along with this idea, do you believe you were called to play drums? If so, was this something that happened early in your career or later?

No, I was physically called. As in, we needed a drummer and I loved hitting things. People told me from the beginning that I had a very natural ability to play, though it took me a long time to learn to play things correctly because I never took lessons or studied the basics of drums. I’ve always been technically challenged, I believe, because I am left-handed and learned to play drums on a right-handed kit. I have always considered music to be my religion. So, in that way I am spiritually called to play music, because it means everything to me.

Can someone who didn’t have the hand of god reach down and move them to play drums develop the skills of Tony Williams or Neil Peart? Or did these players posses something innate (pre-ordained by some god) that cannot be learned?

I love all music with audacity. It’s not important whether the artist has impeccable skill or is making the most lovable lunkheaded attempt at their instrument. It’s the audacity of those who create something that many people would consider foolish or cheesy or whatever. And, typically all legendary drummers have had the nerve and skill to play with such flair and panache that others envied their playing. But, I think it all comes down to anyone who can convey the essence of their personality in their playing. That cannot be learned.

What makes a player a “legend” or “great”?

A style and sound that is immediately recognizable when you hear it. Some drummers whose sound I always recognize include: Bill Stevenson, John Bonham, Dave Grohl, Jim Kimball, Ronnie Tutt, et al.

Can a woman ever be as great a player as a man? Name one female player who is, or isn’t, destined for greatness (Please don’t say Meg White!).

Certainly. There are many great female drummers. It’s just that oftentimes their approach is different. A former girlfriend of mine who played guitar and sang in a band with a girl drummer once put it in perspective well when we were discussing why most women are great dancers, but many are poor drummers. She said it’s because women are too intent upon being graceful. Men are mostly flailing, stomping beasts without a wisp of grace, but oftentimes, their freneticism passes as “drumming”. But really the best drummers — both male and female — have that natural grace while investing their very being in every beat they play. Clearly John Bonham had the same grace to his playing as any great ballerina, and put the same physical intensity and graceful form into each beat as any great dancer puts in to their physical expression.

I was recently at a dinner party seated next to two fantastic drummers, Gina Schock and Patty Schemel which reminded me just how much bullshit that women drummers have had to endure and how little appreciation the two of them have received for their talents. Gina and Patty, Cindy Blackman, Lindsey Elias and many others have continually proven that skill and ability transcend gender.

What kind of drummer do you aspire to be?

One that finds a unique way to approach a song while still making sense in the primal notion of rhythm. White people are too into celebrating themselves by trying to stand out in the music as a virtuoso rather than creating that rat king of rhythm that is rock’n’roll.

Pragmatism:

How often do you practice? If you don’t, why?  If you do, what aspects of drumming do you practice the most often?

I rarely have enough time to practice on my own, as much as I know that I should. Between work and playing in two bands, most of my practice time comes from playing in a band. The value of warming up with rudiments, and practicing them on your own, is immense. I try to be disciplined, but circumstances often interfere.

Do you rent rehearsal space or are you the neighborly nuisance?

I have a rehearsal space shared by two bands in which I play drums. I did have a home basement practice space for a few years living in Portland, OR which was great for practicing on my own every day. I wish I could have that again… without having to live in Portland ever again.

Even at this stage in your career, do you occasionally take lessons with a professional instructor? If you are an instructor yourself – describe your teaching style.

I really should, but despite forcing myself to learn the fundamentals of drumming over the years and practicing warm-ups, I worry about being told the right and wrong way to approach an instrument ruining it for me. This is a contradiction, of course, because I love a very carefully and intelligently constructed melody, but I think rhythm should often be the barbarians pounding at the gates… and I think I know enough about how to do that without instruction.

Have you had, or currently have, any physical difficulties from playing and what have you done to alleviate them?

More and more over time. My hearing has probably suffered the most because I never wore ear plugs for 14 years of playing drums at practice 5 days a week and throughout hundreds of shows. Otherwise, mostly just getting older and not feeling quite as spry as I had been a few years ago. My grandfather rode his bike between 20-30 miles every day, despite being hit by cars and hospitalized with several broken bones many times, he kept on doing what he enjoyed. An active body works its hardest at keeping it alive. I intend to keep on playing as long as my body allows me to, and as long as technology allows me to replace those body parts that no longer cooperate.

Given the instrument is physically taxing do you have a health regimen you employ to maintain stamina and strength?

Yes. While I’ve never been a jock and never played team sports, I realize now that I’ve always been involved in physical activities like karate, running, biking, drumming, etc. I’ve had a regimen of running for 30 minutes combined with biking for at least 15 minutes every day for the past 26+ years. I’ve never been a smoker and I try to take care of myself, though I definitely drink too much.

Whimsy:

What was the first instance in which you managed to play a song in its entirety without missing a note? What song was it?

Hmmm… on drums, I don’t recall. On guitar is was Butthole Surfers. When I was 14, I’d figured out how to play one of their songs and was so excited I ran downstairs and declared to my parents, “I figured out how to play Butthole Surfers!” I’m not so sure it was a proud moment for them. On drums, I had more of a crash course, so it was overall just a pleasure to be able to play through any song all the way without making a mistake.

Was there ever an instance onstage you knew you were going to be sick or were feeling extremely fatigued? What did you do about it? Did you leave the stage or keep playing?

Yes. When The VSS was on tour in January 1997, I’d come down with a high fever and was feeling really, really sick earlier before the show. We’d driven overnight from Omaha, NE after our van broke down in a huge snowstorm, forcing us to buy an old car for $500. We left our roadie behind until the van was repaired because we had to fly out of NYC the day after the show in Philadelphia. We played on borrowed equipment, which was an added challenge and throughout the set I was reeling and having incredible fever-induced hallucinations. During one of the last songs that had an extended pounding trance-like ending (“Nervous Circuits”), I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. As I was hitting the drums I felt myself drifting out through the crowd. It was really pretty incredible. I’ve hoped to have that same experience again over the years, hopefully without being that sick.

Is it true drummers have superiority complexes specifically derived from being in much better shape than most people, especially fellow band members?

No, I’ve never encountered this at all. But, then again, I’ve never played in bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rollins Band or Kraftwerk. So, it’s never been an issue. Typically, people assume that the drummer in a band photo is the most buff person, but typically, drummers are very spry and thin — it’s all about flexibility. It’s in the wrist, not the bicep. Lead singers are the ones who need to flex muscles.

How often do you glance in the mirror and say, “Damn I have great __________!”

Sense of irony! (All the time).

After all these years: How’s your hearing?

What? My hearing is destroyed. I used to have really, really great hearing. Now, I am haunted by a phantom hi-hat in my left ear that follows me everywhere, especially when people are talking to me. Wear your earplugs, people. I feel like that woman in the anti-smoking commercial who inhales her cigarette through her tracheotomy tube. I knew it was bad for me to not wear earplugs, but drumming for me has always been about throwing caution to the wind and playing every song, every show as if it were your last moment alive. Perhaps that is the essence of playing drums — running everything at full throttle, with a sense of artful purpose, body be damned.

Photo: Samantha Franklin