On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of these beloved percussive performance artists, we get to be a fly on the wall during a typical day.
From DRUM! Magazine’s April 2017 issue | By Andrew Nusca | Photography by Eddie Malluk
It shouldn’t be this warm on a Wednesday afternoon in November in New York City, but it is. At 68 degrees, the yellow cabs are honking, the schoolchildren are shouting, and the construction workers are hollering as if it were a midsummer’s day. Give hibernating New Yorkers a single ray of sunshine, it seems, and they’ll bask in it all day. A young man in a purple sedan rolls across Avenue C with his windows down, the Nas on his stereo turned way up: If you really think you’re ready to die/with nines out/this is what Nas is ’bout n***a/the time is now!
Except for the electric blues and oranges of the graffiti on its walls, the theater at 238 East Third Street is barely noticeable. Its red brick façade blends in with the rest of the East Village tenements around it. Only its trio of industrial double doors, thick with coats of black paint, suggest that something more interesting lies inside. And it couldn’t be truer. Behind these doors, in a cavernous, double-height space draped with black curtains and packed with amplifiers, is the thumping heart of the organization known as Blue Man Productions. This is the Third Street Theater, the sprawling laboratory in which some of the most innovative musicians on Earth research and develop new sounds for the world-famous Blue Man Group.
The scene inside could be described more accurately in religious terms than rhythmic ones. Seven male musicians (two guitarists, one keyboardist, and four percussionists, all wearing street clothes) stand at their stations in seeming ecstasy. The droning, tribal music that they are creating — entrancing and pensive and mystical — is thick in the air. Like a sermon, it builds slowly over the course of several minutes, swells into a sonic wave that raises the hair on my forearms, and dissipates. When silence reclaims the room, the performers nod at each other quietly and reset their instruments. The only visible shades of blue are on the recycling bin by the door.
“Yeah, I think the top was a little much,” the keyboardist says aloud.
“Yeah, I couldn’t really hear the low ones,” says the percussionist behind a set of sparkly, red, standing Drum Workshop toms.
“Okay, let’s take it one more,” the keyboardist replies.
And so they do. The percussionist seated behind a conventional drum kit kicks things off with a handheld shaker. His comrades progressively add rhythmic layers with more hand percussion. After a few measures, the musician standing in the room’s center begins playing a tall instrument they call a “spinulum” that physically resembles an electrified cymbal stand and sonically resembles a theremin. The guitarists, standing off to the side of the room like a church choir, eventually sweep in. Tongues begin to wag, mouths begin to grimace, biceps begin to twitch, heads begin to bang in athletic rapture. The tune, called “Vortex,” is from the 2016 Blue Man Group album, Three; it wouldn’t be out of place on the 1999 Nine Inch Nails album The Fragile. Build, swell, crash, dissipate, all in the course of four minutes.“All right,” the keyboardist says as the last notes ring out. “Let’s move on.”
It would be easy to assume that the men rehearsing at the Third Street Theater are Blue Men, but that would be wrong. Guitarists Dave Steele and Chris Dyas; keyboardist Jeff Turlik; and percussionists Bill Swartz, Mike Savage, Steve Ballstadt, and Chris Bowen are more than that. They are part of the brain trust behind Blue Man Productions, the umbrella company that encompasses performers in residence in six world cities, a touring production of the same name, and a portfolio of compositions and recordings.
Only one of them, Bowen, has ever been an actual Blue Man, that is, the musically inclined stage actors that cover themselves in cobalt grease and spend 90 minutes miming for the audience. The rest came up through the organization as members of “the band,” the three-piece rock outfit that sits in a Day-Glo nest adjacent to the Blue Man stage and pounds out songs during the show with furious precision. Each Blue Man Group show has approximately three Blue Men and three bandmembers; there are about 75 total worldwide. But the men at Third Street Theater — in their tattered black t-shirts, ripped jeans, sneakers, and leather jackets — are the music professionals tasked with writing new songs for the troupe, inventing new instruments for the show, and training new Blue Men. It’s a daunting task. Many of today’s Blue Men are as old as the show itself.
Blue Man Group began in New York in 1987 as a performance art idea hatched by cofounders Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink. The trio, only one of whom was a trained drummer, sought to establish a character that was communal and comic, alien yet human. (The dichotomy is deliberate. Say it aloud: “Hu-man.” Then: “Blue Man.”) The use of drumming as one of the show’s signature elements came from a desire to emphasize the natural, tribal aspects of their mute characters. The use of unusual instruments on- and off-stage — from polyvinyl chloride pipes to metallic orbs — was borne from a desire to exude creativity and spectacle. Today, the name Blue Man Group is virtually synonymous with the act of thumping on pipe ends.
At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about the Blue Man universe. Some people in the organization began their careers as performance artists; others were musicians (of all types: surf rock, punk, classical, jazz, heavy metal). They’re from all over the continent: Toronto, Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh. Some are classically trained; others are entirely self-taught. Besides the blue paint and bizarre instruments, they’re fairly normal people.
“We were just guys who played in bands in Boston in the ’90s and knew each other,” Turlik later tells me. “None of us started off as theater, hot-shot guys. We all were dudes in rock bands. We worked our way up from being the lowest sub — one show a week — to doing tours and records. It’s been a very organic process.”
But there are aspects to the gig that are off the charts. For example, the Blue Man men insist there’s no way to prepare for a career in the group. And how could you? None of their compositions are written down; instead, they pass through the organization like folklore. All training is done in person. The homegrown instruments, from the “electric zither” to the “spinulum” to the “tone mill,” deliberately defy categorization.
“We didn’t want anything that sounded like it came from the outside world,” Steele says. “Without a doubt the hardest musical thing I’ve ever done in my life is learning how to play the zither.”
And, of course, there’s improvisation — tons of it. With neither a score nor a script, improvisation is as much an element of the group’s musical performance as the acting. To be a drummer for Blue Man Group is to swim fearlessly into the murky musical unknown.
“The band actually works a lot like a jazz band because you have to make the same decision at the same time without actually talking to each other,” Steele says. “You get this antenna sense of each other.”
“It’s like modern vaudeville,” Turlik says.
After the performers finish their rehearsal, I walk across the street to Corlear’s, a dimly lit cocktail bar, to join Steve Ballstadt, officially an associate music director for the group, and Bill Swartz, creative director of technology and effects, for a drink. We take a table in the back, order a round, and get to talking about some of the music the group was playing earlier. I ask them: How do their compositions translate from the laboratory to the stage?
“Right now, we’re immersed in this project to get this material from our new album [Three — in fact, the band’s fourth album] on its feet and play it live in a space with a band,” Ballstadt says. “We never really put everybody in a room and play them as songs. So right now, this is a big project — make it live, make it playable.”
“A lot of modern music is played by sharing files and everyone adding little bits to it in their own vacuums,” Swartz adds. “Now we have to unpack that and see what works with live musicians playing everything. How do you outline all those things, highlight them, give them feel, give them some tangible qualities?”
And, of course, how do you actually play them? As core members of the Blue Man team, Ballstadt and Swartz must instruct other players on how to manipulate the unusual instruments that are the signature of the group to reproduce their new compositions. It’s not easy. There are targets small and large, objects shaped like plates and spheres, metals and plastics and rubbers, electronic components, and the all-important dynamics between as many as three drummers who need to hear each other and stay in time.
“And the shows are so different that you can’t assume anything,” Ballstadt adds. “You have to just dive into the deep end and get rolling. It takes time to hone in and get the nuance of the pieces and try to make them your own, and give them some teeth and let them breathe.”
It’s remarkable how much problem-solving the men and women of the Blue Man Group engage in on a daily basis. From the design of the instruments to the writing of the songs to the snap performance decisions to the mounting of new overseas productions, there is nothing rote or predictable about the job. There are few rules. The schedules are fluid. The threat of getting one-of-a-kind instruments stuck in customs is real. To call it chaos isn’t quite right; it is more a consistent comfort in knowing that everything comes with an asterisk. A life in the Blue Man Group is wildly different from the record-tour-rest cycle that most professional drummers endure over a career. And yet the men behind the masks, so to speak, couldn’t be more normal.
So what kind of chops does it take to join Blue Man Group? Ballstadt and Swartz smile when I ask, the memories of a thousand “cattle call” auditions rushing to the forefront of their minds. The drumming for Blue Man seems simplistic on the surface, they say, but it requires a musicianship that’s hard to come by.
“It’s loose-but-hard playing,” Swartz says. “You’ll find guys with jazz chops that can’t rock at all. And then you’ll find rock guys who are total meatheads and have no finesse. The good guys — you just know it when you see it.”
“Often there’s a nuance that will make all the difference [between drummers],” Ballstadt adds. “You go deeper and suddenly a person can’t get their feet together. Some guys — girls or guys — just fold. There are unorthodox patterns that are more musical than sensible, compositionally speaking. They’re not used to it, playing toms all the time instead of just backbeat. That can make all the difference. We have a very eighth note-heavy show. There are guys who are used to playing rudiments and just get lost. They’re in the weeds.”
“We want someone with personality,” Swartz interjects.
“Can they digest information? Are they cool, listening, respectful?” Ballstadt adds. “People that are ass****s get weeded out pretty quickly.”
“We hand out fines for that kind of thing,” Swartz says, grinning. “We definitely shame people.”
By nightfall it’s self-evident that no Blue Man Group experience is complete without seeing the show itself. I have tickets for the evening’s 8:00 p.m. performance at the Astor Place Theater, the off-Broadway home of the show since 1991. I’m told the show is quite different than it was when it launched 26 years ago; though the blue grease and percussive hijinks remain, its makers continually revise its pop culture references to keep with the times.
That much is clear when I arrive to the venue early. Onstage, next to the show’s iconic Tubulums, the marimba-like PVC instruments played by the Blue Men, sit three enormous props resembling Apple’s iPhone, a now-ubiquitous device that made its debut at the Macworld convention in 2007. It’s safe to say these weren’t a part of the original production.
There to meet me is Josh Mathews, 46, the designated drummer for the night and the music director for the New York show. He’s dressed head to toe in black, save for fluorescent streaks down his arms and torso, and his face is covered in dabs of yellow and pink paint. The look is part tribal, part Tron.
He takes me onstage and up a steep ladder to “the loft,” as he calls it, the snug space where he and his string-playing bandmates for the evening, Daniel Dobson and Jeremiah Kops, will create their ruckus. The entire box is covered in sound-deadening foam. A Fender bass guitar and two Gibson Les Pauls hang from the wall. Stuffed into the opposite corner — the cockpit, if you will, with a wide window overlooking the theater — is a dense kit with at least eight drums and ten cymbals. A hefty pair of headphones sits on the snare drum. Fluorescent yellow and pink spatter the centers of the drumheads and the edges of the bronze.
“You don’t see too many bands where the drummer is in the front,” he says with a chuckle.
I ask Mathews how he ended up in what he describes as his “dream gig.” He tells me that he was always interested in ensemble drumming. After high school, he moved from his native Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to New Orleans to pursue the passion alongside locals like Russell Batiste. After moving to New York to study at the Drummers Collective, Mathews joined Blue Man Group part-time at age 27. Five years later, he went full time.
“When we sit down behind the drum kit we’re trained to be a colorful metronome in a sense — to be solidly in the pocket,” he says. “What we’re trying to do up here is sound like many people playing at once. So, we focus a lot on independence.”
He motions to the two-legged hi-hat in front of him, describing how a heel-toe motion evokes the sounds of tribal anklets. “That’s the Blue Man feet,” he says. He mentions that his kit is almost perfectly symmetrical. “Your kit almost always goes in the direction of your dominant hand,” he says. “But in the Blue Man world, the kit goes both ways. For example, we have a floor tom on our left side, inside the hi-hat. It’s very strange. But [this setup] completely opened up my left side, to play in a more circular way. You can get more polyrhythms going.”
By now the audience is filling the auditorium and it’s nearly show time, so I descend from the loft and escape down a backstage corridor stocked with gallons of fluorescent yellow and pink paint. (Notably absent: blue.) I poke my head into a white dressing room where I find the Blue Men of the evening smearing blue grease on their faces. After introducing myself, I ask them how they manage to remove the color after every performance.
“Avocado oil,” replies one without skipping a beat.
It’s show time. The lights go down as the row of people in front of me adjust their plastic ponchos, happily provided to them by the show’s ushers. As I begin to regret my earlier decision to wear a crisp white dress shirt to the show, a digital sign à la the artist Jenny Holzer appears onstage. Yell now, it implores.
A portion of the audience whoops and hollers.
Then the sign updates: Louder.
They shout more forcefully.
And then: Like a cowboy.
The audience musters its best “yippie aye yay!” before falling back into giggles.
This participatory give and take is, of course, a key element of the show. The Blue Man Group performance embraces bursting through the so-called “fourth wall.” At many points during the show, there is more action going on in the aisles than there is onstage.
Suddenly three silhouettes of Blue Men appear onstage. Wearing welder’s masks, they play a driving, headbanging beat with light sticks on large drums, backed by the band in the loft. The Blue Men play in such a way that the rhythm moves from one man to another, allowing one with free hands to pour substantial amounts of fluorescent paint on the drumheads of the others playing. Yellow and pink droplets fly all over the stage with great spectacle. Over time the rhythm recedes as one Blue Man begins to inspect the drumhead of another — and then, boom! The drummer standing in front of it forcefully smacks the head, sending paint flying into the face of his stunned companion. The audience squeals with delight.
The mix of music, comedy, and visual spectacle continues unabated in the Blue Man Group show. In one segment, the Blue Men throw marshmallows into each other’s mouths; Mathews’ drums, circus-like, help build the tension. In another featuring the “iPhone” props, the Blue Men try a “Backbeat” app featuring different rhythms of the world; a Latin one prompts a Blue Man to take up maracas and shimmy. Another scene involves an extra-large PVC pipe that changes pitch as the Blue Men slide it back and forth, giving the band in the loft a melody under which to layer a driving rock beat. In another gag the Blue Men begin weaving their way through the seats in the theater to find a willing participant for an experiment involving Twinkies; the loft band plays a pensive jungle rhythm as the actors find their target.
Throughout the show there are moments of contemporary music for comedic effect. Clips of “No Church In The Wild,” “Whip It,” “Smoke On The Water,” “Tequila,” Beethoven, Morricone, and Lynyrd Skynyrd make cameos, respites from the tribal rock that underpins most of the show.
By now it’s getting late and the show is approaching its climax. This being Blue Man Group, it goes out with a bang. In the final act, the Blue Men begin hammering their PVC instruments to a song called “Shake Your Euphemism,” transforming the entire theater into a pulsing nightclub. Streamers fall from the ceiling, strobe lights stutter, and heavy bass throbs as ribbons of white toilet paper fly all over the auditorium, coating every inch of the crowd. I pull some of the tissue from my eyes just in time to see Mathews and company dancing in the loft, arms raised. Having completely ceded their jobs to a drum machine, there’s clearly nothing left to do but set down their instruments and, well, shake their booties.
Use your bum to stir that soup/And shake it all around like Blue Man Group!