FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S OCTOBER 2017 ISSUE | BY JOE BOSSO | PHOTOGRAPHY BY EDDIE MALLUK
The drummer is brewing espresso in the kitchen of his home in Jackson Heights, Queens. “‘Shut up and play your drums.’ I get that one a lot,” Antonio Sanchez says. “Or ‘I love your drumming, but man, your political thing sucks.’ That’s another one.” He cracks a smile, then adds thoughtfully, “Of course, they’re not all like that. A lot of people agree with me. But it’s amazing to me that so many people out there think musicians have no right to talk about what’s going on.”
While he has yet to earn the title of The Left’s Answer To Ted Nugent, Sanchez has been a highly visible political force on social media the past few years, and he isn’t about to tone down his views or the frequency of his posts because of a few naysayers. But whereas Nugent is pugnacious and caustic, Sanchez handles his critics the same way he commands a drum kit — with supreme authority, intelligence, and a confident flair. “I always answer those people directly: ‘Man, it’s my duty to say something,’” he says. “‘It’s my duty as an artist, as a Mexican, as a musician, and as a citizen to speak up.’ That’s what we’re supposed to do. We have to speak up against our government. They’re our employees — it really comes down to that.”
He lets his words hang in the air for a second, and then he shrugs almost defiantly and drives the point home: “I mean, what’s the alternative?”
For Sanchez, that would be art, which comes in the immediate form of an astonishing new album that bears a most provocative title: Bad Hombre. At first, the name almost seems like a bit of a put-on — if it were the title of a Cheech And Chong album from 40 years ago, it would surely have been considered a joke — but coming as it does from Sanchez, who emigrated to America from his native Mexico City in 1993, it’s a succinctly well-crafted response to some of the comments made by this nation’s new commander-in-chief, starting with the remarks the former real estate mogul made when he announced his candidacy in New York City’s Trump Tower on June 15, 2015.
“Of course it’s personal,” Sanchez admits. “The title is a reflection of stuff Trump said about Mexicans in particular, like, ‘We have some bad hombres here, and we’re gonna get ’em out’ — because as you know, most of us are rapists, drug dealers, and criminals.” He lets out an exasperated sigh as he shakes his head, choosing his next words carefully. “Calling my record Bad Hombre is a way to express what I’m feeling about what’s going on. An artist’s weapon is art, and this has been a good way for me to get rid of some anger I have and turn it into something positive. People have a voice on social media, and I’m very active on that front, but I have my art, too, and I choose to use it in a purposeful way. The time is right for that.”
Birth Of A Bad Hombre
Bad Hombre is Sanchez’s sixth album, but unlike his previous records — starting with Migration in 2007 and ending with The Meridian Suite in 2015 — it’s a true solo effort, one that he wrote, performed, and recorded entirely on his own over the past year in his studio (“The Lab,” he calls it), which is located in the basement of his house. He heads downstairs to The Lab, a neat and tidy affair, devoid of the usual assortment of junk and tangled cables one usually sees in recording studios. The main focal point of the room is his Yamaha PHX drum kit, meticulously cleaned and miked for action, and off to the side is a workstation desk that houses a sparse arrangement of recording gear: a Pro Tools setup and a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 keyboard MIDI controller. Taking a seat at the desk and gazing at the ever-changing images on a monitor screen, he marvels, “Everything you hear on the album I did right here.”
In the past, Sanchez conceived and recorded his records in much the same way — sitting at a piano, improvising melodies and harmonies that would inspire grooves. For Bad Hombre, however, he often reversed that approach, starting with the rhythms and filling in the sonic spaces from there. And at other times he decided that the best process was no process at all. “No rules, no expectations — let’s just see where it goes,” he says. “I wanted to try something that I had never done before. It felt important to me to see what I could really do if I was left to my own devices, with absolutely no input from anybody else. This was just me, alone in The Lab, here in the basement of my house.”
In many ways, Bad Hombre is a continuation — an outgrowth, really — of the music Sanchez composed and performed for Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning 2014 film Birdman. (Due to a technicality involving existing classical music, the drummer was disqualified for an Oscar nomination himself but would ultimately bag a Grammy for the picture’s score.) “There were some pads on that and stuff that I wasn’t involved with — some of the atmospheres were added later by other people,” Sanchez explains. “But it inspired me to investigate sounds on my own and take them further. I really got into the technological part of recording. I started using Pro Tools and became curious about software instruments. It was like a new world opened up. I was like a vegetarian discovering different foods. Experimenting with sounds that weren’t made by real instruments was so inspiring. I really got into creating something new.”
“I just don’t like it when it sounds like a drummer’s record — you know what I mean — or it sounds like you’re at a drum clinic. We’ve heard that kind of thing before.”
— Antonio Sanchez
One thing Sanchez stresses from the get-go is that, despite his reputation as a “drummer’s drummer,” a well-earned title from his longtime association with Pat Metheny along with stints backing up jazz legends Michael Brecker, Gary Burton, and Chick Corea, among others, Bad Hombre isn’t really a drum record per se. It’s something radically different — call it metaphysical mood music. Not to say there isn’t bravura stick work throughout; Sanchez unleashes dizzying, shape-shifting torrents of polyrhythms on the hypnotic track “Momentum,” he performs a one-for-the-ages open drum solo on the electro masterpiece “Antisocial,” and he lets loose his inner John Bonham on the thunderous art rocker “The Crossing.” But on a good many of the tracks, electronics provide the structural pulse.
“That was the whole idea,” he points out. “I wanted it to be drum driven, but I didn’t want a bunch of drum solos with electronic backgrounds as an afterthought. The drums and the soundscapes kind of overlap here. I just don’t like it when it sounds like a drummer’s record — you know what I mean — or it sounds like you’re at a drum clinic. We’ve heard that kind of thing before. I wanted this to have a different kind of musical meaning, so that the message was more than just ‘Hey, check out how amazing my skills are.’”
Asked for how he would classify the album, Sanchez lets out a laugh and shakes his head. “Man, that’s a hard one,” he says. “It’s not groove DJ music. It’s a weird mix of stuff. There’s no melodies, really. I wasn’t really thinking in that way compositionally. I guess you could call it ‘future jazz’ or something like that. I hate genres — they get to be so meaningless in a way. And especially if you’re trying to do something new, they can weigh you down with people’s perceptions and expectations.” He adds that he played the record recently for his mentor, Metheny, who weighed in with this assessment: “Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it before.”
From Whence Inspiration Comes
Sanchez has been listening to a lot of electronic music lately. He lists Aphex Twin, Bibio, Baths, Little Dragon, and Boards of Canada as some of his current favorites. “Electronic artists tend to approach their music in different ways,” he theorizes. “There’s a lot of sound layers that don’t exist in nature with acoustic instruments, and I find that so inspiring. Sometimes even the sound from my gear could inspire a tune.”
Such was the case with the vibey, spacious, and altogether intoxicating track “Home.” One day Sanchez was messing around on his Kontakt Komplete controller, going through the sound library, and he became entranced by a peculiar sound called “Mellow” (for a while he even called the song that). “It was so cool, just the sound of it,” he recalls. “It inspired me to write this line on the keyboard. Once I had the line, I immediately went to the drums and tried to play to that. I was just grooving. I would watch what I was doing on the big computer screen. It was cool interacting with myself, but it was like I was having an exchange with somebody else.”
One other time, he was listening to a sequence of notes played by an arpeggiator, and he had an idea: What if he kept the time signature of the sequence in 4/4, but he played the drums in 5/4? “Obviously, you’d get this overlap at the bar length before it would come back to the same place,” he explains, “but that’s what was so cool about it. It kind of snaps back and it all fits.” This was the basis for the song “Fire Trail/Distant Glow.” “It’s kind of like something I did with Danilo Perez back in the day. We would play with the clave, and I would play this big, wide 5/4.”
Sanchez stumbled across a strange and ominous pulse pattern on his computer that both fascinated and confounded him. He recorded and sequenced it, and then he sat down at his kit and started to play some grooves to see what might click. It didn’t take long for him to realize that a certain Hammer Of The Gods-like spirit had invaded the room. “I was like, ‘Oh, man, this sounds like a little bit of a Led Zeppelin thing going on,’” he enthuses. To completely nail the overwhelming rock gestalt, Sanchez removed the front head from his bass drum and even pulled out some of his old crash cymbals and hi-hats. “That’s not really my sound, but it all worked great on this. Then I started layering a bunch of weird sounds on it. The tension in the track reminded me of a desert, with immigrants trying to cross the border. So I called the song ‘The Crossing.’”
When it came to composing at the drums, Sanchez’s main goal was to operate with a clean slate, simply improvising to see what patterns emerged and where they would land. Sometimes he set unorthodox goals for himself to get out of his comfort zone, and while improvising for what would eventually become the trippy title cut, he removed crashes and ride cymbals from his kit — and by the way, he loves his rides — and focused on the bass drum, snare, hi-hat, and a couple of bone-dry cymbal stacks. “That’s the beauty of having my own studio,” he says. “You can do wild stuff and just go off. You want to improvise and experiment in a commercial space? That’s gonna cost you, and whether you know it or not, it’ll inhibit what you’re doing.”
“Momentum” was born from such improvisation. Sanchez started playing a groove, and before long he found himself gradually increasing the tempo. Liking the feel, he decided to alter the sound of his kit by cutting up T-shirts and draping them over his drumheads. He admits that he’s not the first drummer to utilize this deadening technique — in the late ’60s, Ringo Starr famously laid tea towels on his heads for tracks like “Revolution” and “Come Together” — but it was a first for him. Playing on muffled heads created a different kind of tension, and Sanchez’s response was to speed up even more.
“It really took me to a new place as a drummer,” he notes. From there, he heaped on layers of electronic soundscapes, duplicating and reversing tracks. “Pretty soon, everything was weird and delayed. And I did the same stuff to the drums, too: I’d take a tom roll and then I’d splice it and reverse it. I was plunging myself into the unknown. ‘What does this button do? I’ll try it.’”
For those still clamoring for him to just “shut up and play your drums,” Sanchez throws down hard on the album closer, “Antisocial,” a beautifully constructed, five-minute tour de force of blitzing bebop, multi-textural dodges, weaving rim-click uppercuts, and full-frontal power playing that answers the question, “Is there anything this guy can’t do on the drums?”
At first, he almost let the track exist as its own island, a pure open solo, but after listening back to it a few times he decided that it sounded like too much of a departure from everything else on the album, so he piled on an assortment of radio signals, computer blips and bleeps, scratches, and other splashes of audio wackiness; there are even bits of Sanchez speaking “crazy stuff” in Spanish punctuated with a cough timed to one of the drumbeats. “It’s pretty out there,” he says. “Try to picture R2-D2 digging jazz, but he’s on acid and there’s an intergalactic drum solo playing in the background.”
To add further surrealism on “Momentum,” he copied the drum tracks but made sure the two performances weren’t totally in sync. “That really adds to the unpredictable nature I wanted to convey,” he says. “You think you’re hearing delay, but you’re not. You’re hearing two kits displaced. It’s kind of an audio trick.”
Sanchez set up The Lab with the help of engineer Pete Karam, who mixed Sanchez’s past three albums. The two men worked up a miking arrangement for the studio drum kit that consists of a pair of Shure SM57s on the snare, a Sennheiser e 604 for each tom (two mounted toms and one floor tom), an AKG D112 MkII and Shure Beta 52 on the bass drum, three Neumann KM 184s for overheads, and one more on the hi-hat. “That’s the basic setup,” Sanchez says. “Pete taught me some good miking techniques, but I like to experiment a lot.”
A spirit of adventure ruled the day when Sanchez put together the album’s opening cut, “Bad Hombre Intro.” As the title implies, it’s a brief number, lasting not even two minutes, and it includes the least amount of drumming on the entire record. But it does feature a memorable collaboration of sorts: Over a dusty vinyl recording of a mariachi band superimposed atop a languid drum and bass groove, Sanchez’s grandfather, Ignacio Lopez Tarso, a heralded stage actor who still performs at the age of 92, delivers a heartfelt, spoken-word tale (in Spanish) of the Mexican Revolution.
“I love the fact that my grandfather is on this record because he’s the ultimate bad hombre. He’s a badass,” Sanchez says reverently. “One of his many projects in the ’70s and ’80s was telling tales — ‘corridos’ in Spanish — of the Mexican revolution accompanied by a great mariachi band. He used to do this live and he recorded a couple of albums back in the day as well, so I took one of my favorite corridos called ‘Benito Canales’ and used it with a rhythm track I’d previously recorded. I played the finished cut for my grandfather, and he was taken aback at first — it’s so different from anything he’s ever heard. But then he was like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool: Your drums and my voice.’ I’m very proud of it.”
Originally, Sanchez had recorded a version of the song that ended with a sample of Donald Trump uttering his now-infamous “bad hombre” line from his third and final debate with Hillary Clinton in October 2016, but acting on the advice of his attorney, the drummer pulled the sound bite. The track now concludes with Sanchez’s own voice, heavily distorted, delivering this pointed response: “We are the bad hombres, and we’re not getting out.”
“It felt good doing it,” he states firmly.
Sounds Of Cinema
Sitting atop Sanchez’s studio desk are four Grammy Awards — three of them for his work with Pat Metheny, along with his golden phonograph for Birdman. He picks up his Birdman Grammy and admits that the massive exposure he received as a result of the film’s success changed everything for him. “I started doing Birdman shows, which was a unique opportunity to be on stage in these huge places all by myself. The movie would be playing, but I would be there at the drums. I did Birdman in Brazil — 15,000 people came. I would do this 10-, 15-minute drum solo, and then I’d talk to the audience — it was great. You can’t plan for something like that to happen, but when the situation presents itself, you have to jump on it.”
Birdman has led to other soundtrack opportunities: Sanchez is currently working on the score for an upcoming MGM/Epix series, Get Shorty, based in part on Elmore Leonard’s 1990 novel. “What I’m doing for Get Shorty is pretty cool,” he says, “and like Birdman, it shows you that the drums can spell out what is happening, but you’re not really spoon-feeding everything for the audience. I get sent episodes or scenes with temp music, but the idea is, ‘Okay, what can I do that fits better?’ So I send them two or three different versions for the cues and they can take what they like. Or maybe they use something from one scene and use it in a different episode. It’s really fun and fascinating work, and it’s definitely something I want to do more of.”
This could make his already-packed schedule even tighter. Touring Birdman around the world and playing with his own modern jazz band Migration (which includes his wife Thana Alexa on vocals) has forced Sanchez to turn down some side gigs of late — with the exception of Metheny. “I enjoy playing with Pat so much, and he’s always so inspiring. His impact on me has been enormous. I’ve been with him for 17 years, and his drive and stamina just amazes me. He always pushes me in such a positive way, and I really value that.”
And now that Bad Hombre is finished, he’s already thinking of a sequel — or more, even — hinting that Bad Hombre Volume II or III could be on the horizon. “Why not do more?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ve got The Lab here, so there’s no reason why I can’t keep doing these albums. It would still be a stand-alone thing — I can’t really play this stuff with my band — but I want to keep pushing myself in whatever moments I have. Maybe I can do a series of albums that would feature world music from different countries, but really obscure world music. That’s a whole area I’d like to get into.”
Or maybe his next project will be something entirely different. It’s nearly impossible to predict where Sanchez might redirect his talents, especially when you’re dealing with an artist as unpredictable as this bad hombre.
Masterful Musicianship: Pat Metheny On Antonio Sanchez
By John Payne
It’s the way Antonio Sanchez bravely charts his own drumming path that impresses his longtime collaborator, guitarist Pat Metheny. “When I think of all my favorite musicians, there’s always a singularity at work,” Metheny says. “It’s a sense that the only way that music could exist was through the prism of that particular musician’s conception of how things should go. And Bad Hombre has the kind of individuality and authority that mark it as completely original in both conception and execution.”
According to Metheny, many drummers play traditionally, because that’s what the music often requires. But very few can define a style of their own while letting everyone around them do their own thing. Sanchez, he says, is just such a drummer.
“There are a few clear lanes in the historical trajectory of how the kit has developed in this music that gets you to the place where Max Roach and Roy Haynes defined a general approach to drums in a small group. That has wound up spawning almost endless sub-styles. It’s really hard to line up Antonio’s thing to those usual markers; as with the work of other members of his generation, sometimes I’m not totally sure I could immediately identify it outside of the context of the fairly obvious influences that are present. Yet, functionally, he can hang in a way that is stylistically appropriate to that tradition while having a high percentage of unique content.”
Metheny praises Sanchez for his special sensitivity to dynamics — a must for anyone who plays in his bands. “The drummer is the one who is basically setting the upper and lower ranges of what the dynamic range will be in every band,” he says. “There is an understanding at work with Antonio that I trace to his abilities as a piano player. I notice that drummers who have skills on other instruments — Jack DeJohnette comes to mind — often have an awareness of the whole picture in ways that might not be there with someone who only plays the drums.
“The core of what Antonio does is a deep musicality that pervades everything. There are plenty of drum details and technical things going on, but none of that means anything unless it actually means something, which in his case it does. Beyond that is the most important aspect of all: He’s an excellent listener.”
Part of what Sanchez brings to Bad Hombre, Metheny says, is an important sense of current events that he illuminates in the album’s music, an internal fire that gives the sound a sense of urgency. “It resonates with this time and reports on his own vision of what is happening in the world through his personal experience, while utilizing his otherworldly skills to represent the things that have a deep place in his heart and soul. He’s describing something that goes far beyond ‘Look how good I can play.’”
Inside The Lab: Down A Flight & To The Left
By Joe Bosso
Originally, Antonio Sanchez envisioned his home studio as a practice space, but right as he and his engineer pal Pete Karam started assembling gear and working on the setup, Birdman was released. “Things got a little more complicated pretty quickly after that,” Sanchez says. “Suddenly I didn’t have so much time for practice.
“Before Birdman, I was just doing sideman gigs,” he continues. “People would call me to go out and play, and between tours I had all this free time. Now suddenly I’m writing more and figuring out how to record. I needed gear that wouldn’t take me years to figure out.”
The system that Sanchez and Karam put together is a model of both efficiency and efficacy, consisting of an iMac with Avid Pro Tools | HD 12, a Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88 weighted keyboard controller, an Avid Artist Mix control surface, two Universal Audio Apollo 8 Thunderbolt audio interfaces, a pair of Yamaha HS8 powered studio monitors, and a host of plug-ins (Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere and Soundtoys are current faves).
“Everything here is super-useful,” Sanchez notes. “I didn’t want to invest a bunch of money in gear that I really had no idea how to use. I’ve always been better at figuring out how to make the most of having less options. I told Pete my budget, and he said, ‘Okay, these are really good preamps, and these Yamaha monitors; those are what you want. The stuff wasn’t cheap-cheap, but you want to get results out of what you use. When you do that, everything pays for itself almost immediately.”
The drummer admits that he was still a relative newbie with Pro Tools when he was offered an assignment to compose the music for director Fernando Leon De Aranoa’s Spanish political documentary Politica, Manual De Instrucciones. Rather than turn down the project, Sanchez seized the opportunity as a learning experience. “I had a month to figure everything out — write the music, record it, the whole thing,” he says. “I was incredibly stressed, but I got it all together.”
When tracking his drums, Sanchez utilizes a wireless mouse and computer keyboard, so he’s able to operate as his own producer and engineer, all while seated at his kit. “I just press ‘Record’ and I can do a take or even multiple takes — whatever I need,” he says. “It’s great when you’re improvising and you’re trying to work up ideas. You can stop and start at will, and once you have something good, then you can edit the performance and really turn it into a track.”
Despite the studio’s small size, Sanchez says that he can get any drum sound he wants with the use of plug-ins. “People think that you need this giant drum room, but you really don’t,” he concludes. “For what I do, my records and the film and TV stuff, I have more than enough room. My drums sound so good down here, it’s freaky. People pay thousands of dollars for the same drum sound I can get in my basement.”