Brian Chase has always stood out in the context of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Amongst peacocks of the highest order – a microphone-smashing, beer-spewing, sequin-frocked, scenery-chewing frontwoman and a pensively mugging, coolly stylized guitarist – the New York City drummer comes off like an unassuming everyman: shaggy haired, bespectacled, plainly clothed. He smiles a lot too, looking like someone who’s just happy be to playing his instrument, regardless of whether it’s in a sweaty basement or in the headlining slot of a major festival. He’s stood out for how much he doesn’t stand out. Photo shoot for the band’s iTunes EP? Sure, let him throw on his finest beige t-shirt.
But it would be a mistake to conflate flash with craft: Chase’s drumming has defined the sound of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as much as any other element. Knotty and intricate – though unabashedly primordial when the situations calls for it – Chase’s style is bewitching and defiant of expectation, and in the class of ’00s marquee rock acts, it’s without comparison.
For much of this decade, Chase has been flexing those chops outside the world-conquering trio too: He’s an active member of New York’s experimental fusion scene, performing and recording with other local musicians at a head-spinning pace. (Take a stroll through his Facebook page and witness the ticker tape parade of concert fliers.) While Chase could easily sit back and rest on the success of his day job, he’s chosen to put that traditional grip to work.
He’s currently taking that collaborative spirit on the road, touring with pianist Thollem McDonas in support of their forthcoming Dub Narcotic Session, a freewheeling collection of songs charged with the momentum of a grand piano flung down the staircase. BYT checked in with Chase over the weekend to discuss the record and life in Brooklyn, as well as to solicit his opinion on some of jazz and rock’s most distinguishable drummers.
What’s your history with Thollem?
Thollem and I met in the summer of 2012 through NYC bassist James Ilgenfritz. We played a handful of shows together in the area within the span of a few days. The following year, Thollem invited me out to do a two day record session with him and guitarist/vocalist Todd Clouser at the legendary studio Dub Narcotic in Olympia, Washington. Now he and I are on fucking tour together.
What led you to Dub Narcotic Studio? What qualities do you look for when choosing a place to record?
I don’t remember how Thollem decided on Dub Narcotic. I know that he has connections to Olympia, mostly through multi-instrumentalist Arrington De Dionyso and artist China Starr, who did the cover work for our new album. It could’ve come from that.
When choosing a place to record there are lots of factors involved. Many of them are based on simple requirements of the music, and which studio’s set up will best suit those purposes. Also, the personality and background of the engineer makes a difference in determining who will ideally best capture the spirit of the music.
Stylistically, there’s a lot going with the Dub Narcotic Session. To the degree that you classify and process your own music, how do you process it?
Well, with improvising, the musical background of the performer often rises to the surface, and Thollem and I both have extensive histories with many styles and genres of music. In the music here, we both allow ourselves much room for those influences to make themselves known so it’s not surprising if a reference or two of something comes and goes in the course of the flow of the improvisation. This music didn’t have much constraints in the sense that when we are playing in different contexts those are usually more specific in terms of what is stylistically appropriate. It’s a lot like how language functions, I guess.
It seems as if you’re collaborating with someone different every day. How do you choose projects? How do you find the time?
I am involved with many different projects/performers/artists. The way it comes about is mostly by situations choosing me, as well as me encouraging them. The music scene in NYC is very much a community – or many different communities. Once you get involved and start playing then it kind of snowballs with one thing leading to the next. There are times when it’s more busy and times when it’s less busy. It’s important to keep the ball rolling and working to move projects forward and help them grow, which in turn can lead to more.
As for finding the time, sometimes I don’t sleep that much, but as long as I feel that what I’m doing is all good things and that I can maintain a perspective of the bigger picture then it’s ok.
In general, how would you describe your life in Brooklyn like these days? What fills your hours outside of music?
Life in Brooklyn is pretty good. It is a very active music and arts community, so when I’m not playing a show, I’m often checking out some more music. This is a community, and it’s important for us to support each other. As for the hours outside of music, I am a regular practitioner of Ashtanga yoga.
Being involved in many styles of music, from experimental to pop, helps me appreciate the various forms of music making as an expression of Music, if you know what I’m saying. Like, there is one Music at the center and the different types of music are just different expressions of it. That being said, different musics have their methods and I am someone that feels a connection to both a more abstract approach and a more representational one, to borrow terms from the art world. One isn’t better than the other, they are just different methods to explore the same thing. Most people in this world tend to connect more directly with a representational approach.
As for a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction when playing in different settings, that really comes from the people with whom I’m playing and the music that we are making; with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs it runs VERY DEEP.
Has the success of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs provided you the luxury to pursue whatever you want musically?
What have you been listening to lately?
As someone who’s long had one foot in fusion and the other in more traditional pop rock, you must hear music from a unique perspective. I wanted to get your thoughts on some other notable drummers, past and present.
Keith Moon (The Who): The epitome of joy while playing: Like seeing a kid blissed out on sugar and you can’t help but feel that bliss yourself, too. Sometimes you’re not always there with him, but at least you’re glad that you know that amount of joy is possible and exists in the world.
Neal Peart (Rush): A friend of mine had a book of transcriptions of his drum parts. When I was in high school, I would look at it. I never bought a copy of my own.
Ginger Baker (Cream): I hear him in his drum fills, that free and open approach, not quite as reckless as Keith Moon, but still with that “abandon” – an attitude that reflects that particular spirit of the “I” in the ’60s.
Stewart Copeland (The Police): Another rock drummer that plays traditional grip!
Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag, Quasi): Yes, she is awesome! Yeah Yeah Yeahs opened up for Sleater-Kinney for a few shows back in, like, 2003 maybe, give or take. It was such a treat to hear her driving that band. I do have a particular memory of being on the side of the stage at Coachella years later and watching her just slam it… I was like, “YES!” Very inspiring.
Buddy Rich: It hasn’t been until later [in life] that I’ve really started to appreciate him. I’ve always tended to prefer other jazz drummers of his era such as Papa Jo Jones and Philly Joe Jones. I do appreciate his effortless technique and his mastery of it, and the way he is just a big fireball that never lets up. Maybe that was my initial reservation with him in the beginning, but his intensity is continually impressive.
Omar Hakim (David Bowie, Dire Straits, Daft Punk): That’s rad he played for Madonna.
Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures): I was a huge Nirvana fan when I was in high school, and was an admirer of Dave’s drumming, mostly because it would make me want to mosh.
Tony Williams: Miles Smiles is one of my favorite records. Oh, and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, too. His playing opens it up, like if you are given a specific object and are curious what it can look like from an amazing amount of different little angles then Tony could show them to you. Not many people can do that to the degree and level of skill that he could.
Black and white Brian Chase photos courtesy of Peter Gannushkin.