FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S APRIL 2018 ISSUE | BY JOE BOSSO | PHOTOS BY EDDIE MALLUK
One was born in Zurich, Switzerland; the other hails from Newport, Rhode Island. One prefers stylish, bespoke suits and rock-star leather pants; the other is more of a blue jeans kind of guy. On paper, Jojo Mayer and John Davis couldn’t be more different, but put them in a room together and the two men seem to operate as equal parts of the same musical brain.
For the past 15 years, drumming virtuoso Mayer and bassist extraordinaire Davis have been the driving forces behind Nerve, the shape-shifting improvisational band that began as an outgrowth of Mayer’s late ’90s Prohibited Beatz parties in New York City. Along with keyboardist Jacob Bergson and sound engineer Aaron Nevezie, Mayer and Davis perform mystifying and thrilling feats of derring-do, re-creating the sounds and textures of electronica on live instruments. Genre-wise, Nerve is a grand melting pot — its music includes elements of rock, jazz, funk, house, and dubstep — that seems to exist in its own stylistic space, and that’s exactly how its creators planned it.
“I had never tried anything like this before I met Jojo,” Davis says. “My background was more in playing jazz and rock, but I also got turned on to electronic music. Hooking up with Jojo was a chance to turn things upside down to see if there was another way to blend it all together. We shared a common language, and that enabled us to devise this kind of agenda to push music forward.”
For Mayer, finding the right bassist for Nerve was a confounding prospect at first. “It wouldn’t work with just a jazz guy, and I couldn’t do it with just a rock guy or a fusion guy,” he says. “In a way, it had to be somebody who was all of those things but none of those things. John had the right curiosity about music that I was looking for, and what’s interesting is, he hadn’t really heard anything like what I was trying to do before we did it — it didn’t exist. But I knew we had a common language between us. We approached music like producers, not players, and that’s what’s really worked for us.”
When they aren’t touring, Mayer and Davis spend a great deal of time working out song ideas at The Bunker, a cozy little recording studio in Brooklyn that is co-owned, conveniently enough, by Davis and Nevezie. It was there that Drum sat down with Nerve’s roguish rhythm section to discuss what makes them click, how ideas and a point of view can be more important than technical proficiency, and why Ringo Starr was the perfect drummer for The Beatles.
DRUM: You both said that you felt as though you shared a common language when you started playing together. What does that mean, exactly?
Jojo Mayer: The language aspect really came down to our approach. It was common to us but different to what other people were doing. It was a feeling. Everything comes down to feel somehow. With John, it wasn’t how he approached rudiments or coordination. It was his point of view, and that allowed us to attain synergy.
An important part of synergy is point of view. If you have point of view that aligns, you can create synergy. You don’t have to completely align — you can deviate in places. It’s almost like you start a negotiation that heads into the same direction. You can argue and disagree — let’s negotiate, let’s fight it out — and then you can get to the best solution.
Is some of that negotiation non-verbal? Can it come out during improvisation?
John Davis: Certainly. Ultimately, everything that happens when we play is informed by our point of view and our intentions. We improvise a lot. We jam a lot. Certain patterns start to emerge. At some point, there are verbal deliberations.
Mayer: I think one of the best things that we started to do a couple years ago was record everything we played. Every sound check is recorded. You listen back to them when you’re in a plane or a van, and you hear those moments, those accidents. Sometimes we’re able to replicate them, sometimes not. But you do hear patterns and ideas that work, so good stuff comes out of the process.
Before Nerve, you both had played with many brilliant musicians. But can you have a great drummer and bassist that don’t click as a rhythm section?
Davis: Absolutely. I’ve played with lots of amazing drummers. You’re able to perform together, but there’s no magic.
Mayer: I come back to point of view. Facility is great — proficiency — but it’s not everything. What is your priority? What do you want to do? You need to take risks in music. You need to choose between security and freedom, and you can’t always have the cake and eat it. You need to be fearless. If you have one player who is fearless and the other is ruled by fear, they won’t hit it off.
How do you two define yourselves? Do you see yourselves as a “traditional” rhythm section?
Davis: When I think of a rhythm section, I go back to [Jamaican rhythm section and production duo] Sly & Robbie. Their contribution was more about creating a style than just two people who can play on a pop record and sound good. I think that’s what iconic rhythm sections do, and I’m not necessarily putting us in that category. But we have a unique vocabulary and a unique way of playing that not everybody has. People have been inspired by what we do, but it’s a very unique approach. It’s ours.
Mayer: I agree with that. When people ask me to collaborate with them and they want an element they hear on Nerve records, I’ll insist on playing with John because I know I can’t get that with another bass player. And the people asking me to play won’t get what they want.
Davis: The same goes for me. People will hire me to play bass on a record, but I won’t play with the same sounds I normally use with Jojo because it won’t make any sense. If they want the full thing, then it’s going to have to be me with Jojo. It’ll sound stupid if I try to play like I do with this band with somebody else.
How does the element of familiarity come into play with the way you two work together? Do you always know what the other guy is going to do?
Davis: No, not always, but you know what the intention is. A lot of it comes down to trust. You trust that the other person wants to make the music as good as possible and to elevate it. When you become familiar with someone’s methodology… I don’t know what he’s going to play, but I know that whatever he plays, the goal is to elevate the music and push it forward. We know that we have different devices for creating drama and musical shapes. I don’t think either of us is concerned that one person is going to pull the rug out from under the other guy — unless it’s done in an interesting way to make the music better.
In a live setting, are there times when you tune the other guy out? You’re in your own zone, but subconsciously you know everything is fine?
Davis: I think you always have to be paying attention. If you’re not, that can be a fatal flaw in being able to play well together. I think all the greatest musicians listen super intently and are aware of everything going on around them. Even if it’s not super-conscious, they’re completely in tune with what’s happening with the band. The minute someone spaces out and isn’t paying attention, they’re not making music anymore.
Mayer: We’re not robots. We have our ups and downs. If I’m having an off day or John might have an off night, we learn how to compensate for that. However, I think the interesting thing is not just to discuss when things work out well, but when they don’t. And when there is conflict, maybe that means the idea is interesting. If we jam and you think something is corny, well, maybe I don’t think it is. Let’s figure it out. Sometimes the corniest stuff is the hippest stuff if you look at it the right way.
Do you look for certain musical cues from each other? Are there signals you both have picked up on?
Davis: Oh, yeah. I mean, we’ve been playing together for 15 years now. We have our own vocabulary of musical cues and idiosyncrasies. I’m sure Jojo hears patterns in my basslines, and he can be like, “Okay, in 16 bars he’s probably going to change or he’s going to drop up.” Or I know Jojo is going to go to somewhere else, so I’ll leave room for him to slide to a different groove.
Mayer: I think every really good musical entity spends a lot of time doing what they do. The Basie bands played 350 shows a year. The Beatles played for three years, eight- to 10-hour sets, seven times a week. They had their s**t together. Later on, they had to play in all of these situations with girls screaming and they couldn’t hear what they were doing, but they were in tune and they could play. That’s what happens when you play a lot.
I think this is one of the dilemmas that we have in our time: There aren’t as many situations and opportunities for bands to play like they had 40, 50 years ago. Back then, bands didn’t just play one-nighters; they played in the same place every night for three months. That thing is no longer happening, which is a very, very big loss.
Before this interview, you had mentioned how musicians these days learn from YouTube. How do you feel that’s impacting their ability to play with other people?
Mayer: It turns into something other than music. Music is a language. A language is a device for communication. How can you communicate when a language isn’t a language? I think that whole YouTube thing will die out. People will lose interest in it. It’s like you’re getting artificial nutrients. We need culture and art. I’m old-fashioned. I believe art has a function in society.
How does something like tone affect how you work together?
Davis: I think sound is everything. Sound and time are far more important than actual notes. I think when you look at all the greatest musicians and the greatest drummers and the greatest bass players, it doesn’t matter what notes they play — it’s the sound they got. That’s the only thing. Anyone can play the same notes Miles played. Anyone can play a beat that Bonham played. It’s the sound and what’s in the person.
Mayer: If you have a guy who works on the floor of Guitar Center demoing the cheapest electronic drum kit and you compare him with somebody really famous playing a $7,000 electronic kit, the difference is not that big. And that’s shocking. I’m not against electronic drums; as a matter of fact, I think that great things could be done with them if we change our attitude about karaoke culture. It’s possible to make better electronic drums, but corporations choose not to.
Do you two have agreed-upon formalities in how you establish grooves?
Davis: There are no formalities. You have to be able to play well enough; that’s not an issue. I don’t need to hear four bars of him playing to be able to play in time with him — it’s immediate. It could be something totally crazy, but as soon as the other person understands what it is, we’re cool.
Mayer: The older I get, the less I believe that you create a groove. I think you enter a groove. It’s like a wavelength that you find, and through your skill or your approach you’re able to enter that state of mind and that groove. It’s not something that you actually make. It was there before you started playing.
As we’re here talking, there’s something going on, and we’re entering a wavelength, and things become effortless and nice. So with music, it’s not like, “Oh, I need to create a groove like James Brown or like James Taylor.” You simply allow yourself to enter that atmosphere.
We want to take things forward, and you can only do that by allowing yourself to enter a new atmosphere. We agree on the qualities of some of the people that created music before us: Bach, Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, The Beatles…
You’ve mentioned The Beatles several times. Nobody really talks about the rhythm section of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.
Mayer: Well, we’ll talk about them! Ringo is an outstanding musician. They’re all outstanding musicians. Ringo’s feel is very unique, and I think he made The Beatles. I don’t think they would have happened without him. That’s how far I’ll go — he made them.
Everybody in the band was fortunate to have Ringo playing with them, not just because of his feel but also because of his understanding of composition and architecture. That’s what really made those songs unique. I didn’t become aware of that until I was involved in a tribute project to The Beatles, so I went back and really listened very carefully to what Ringo did. Wow, those are little works of art! It’s like a study of simplicity, but also a study of effectiveness.
So you put him with Paul McCartney, and you have two guys who really share a point of view about composition and static structure. They knew how to put things together that interlock. I mean, Paul McCartney’s bass playing, his counterpoint conception, is a great match to the counterpoint structure that Ringo provides.
Davis: I think that pretty much nails it. I feel like it’s impossible to downplay the importance of what they did. They were concerned with sound and the presentation of the instruments. The Beatles were the first band to insist that their engineers put microphones on the bass drum and the snare. We owe them so much in how they advanced the sound of modern recording.
Sure. Listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It sounds as if it were recorded last week.
Mayer: It sounds totally contemporary. I try to do research, and as far I could find, that was one of the first examples of removing the bass drum head and placing the microphone inside the bass drum.
Davis: I’m sure that they drove George Martin and Geoff Emerick absolutely up the wall. At one point, Lennon said that he wanted to make his voice sound like he was singing on top of a mountain in Tibet, and then Geoff would be like, “Okay, what do I do to make that happen?”
But see, all of this is important because, like we were saying earlier, it’s all about point of view and intent. They wanted to break new ground. We want to break new ground. Just getting back to the rhythm section thing, I think it’s Geoff Emerick who said that in all of the recordings he ever did with The Beatles, they never had to stop a take because Ringo made a mistake.
That one anecdote sort of sums up why he was, like, the perfect drummer. I mean, you couldn’t ask for anybody better. His sound was perfect, the parts he played were perfect, and the way he delivered the song was perfect. He makes everything else that happens on top of the sound perfect.
Isn’t it weird, though, that musicians will praise Paul McCartney as a bassist, but a lot of them will disrespect Ringo?
Davis: You won’t hear that from us.
Mayer: Those people should f**k off. If they can’t hear what he does, it means they’re not contenders. If you can’t hear the importance of Ringo, then it’s like you missed a really big lesson about music.
I think some of those musicians who bash Ringo are comparing him to more, shall we say, “athletic” drummers.
Davis: I think that’s the unfortunate side effect of the sports-style commodification of the physicality of playing instruments. Okay, there are some who might say that Adam Clayton isn’t as good of a bass player as, say, Victor Wooten — let’s throw that one out there. And that’s just as stupid. Adam Clayton on The Joshua Tree is absolutely as mind-blowingly perfect as Victor is on a Béla Fleck record. If you can’t hear the perfection of Clayton’s simplicity, then you’re missing the point of music.
Mayer: Once again, music is a language that communicates a point of view, an emotion, a stance. That’s all it’s supposed to do. I don’t think less is more. Very often less is more, but sometimes less is less and sometimes more is more. I don’t care about that those types of things. I care about the effect you’ve achieved.
Jojo, what makes John the perfect bass player to work with?
Mayer: His curiosity, his talent, his work ethic, and his general point of view about this world.
And John: What makes Jojo the perfect drummer for you to work with?
Davis: I don’t want to reiterate too much what we’ve already said, but again, it’s because we have our philosophies aligned, and that allows us to communicate and push forward. He’s got a curiosity that makes the musical conversation interesting and exciting.
You both used the word “curiosity” to describe the other guy.
Davis: Yeah, well, that’s pretty important; otherwise, you’re going to get bored.
Mayer: But you know, you cannot create curiosity if you don’t understand what it is. You need to have that willingness to explore, and that’s what elevates music. But I will say, we’re looking for clarity, not perfection. It’s all about musical clarity.
Davis: I think that’s something worth exploring.