Finding Inspiration at Thrift Stores and Ikea: Drummer Thom Nguyen on Developing Sounds and Versatility

BY AJ DONAHUE

Whenever we set up an interview to discuss gear with a drummer, we always look for players with a unique and highly identifiable sound. Thom Nguyen is one of those players.

He’s more than capable when occupying the traditional trap set role, but Nguyen’s voice really shines when he’s able to push into freer and more avant-leaning settings. His playing is at times deafening and overwhelming, but never inappropriate. It can seem reckless at first blush, but a closer listen reveals deep, deliberate intent. He can make a drum set sound like a full percussion ensemble, a stone grinder, or a swarm of bees.

The Asheville, North Carolina–based drummer may not be a household name, but he’s become very well known in some circles. And he keeps busy—between regular solo performances, shows with indie outfit Nest Egg, and duo sets with guitarist Tashi Dorji under the name MANAS, he’s also toured with Sarah Louise opening for Wood Shjips.

Technique and concept are obviously important to Nguyen’s approach, but we thought picking his brain about sound in particular might shed a little more light onto his process. Nguyen is known for using a variety of bells, pot lids, chains, and other “artifacts”, as he says, to augment his otherwise traditional drum set.

We were able to connect with Nguyen a couple of weeks after the launch of his Batteria Backline drum rental service. After discussing his approach to creating sound, we wrapped up with a few quick notes about what led him to offer backline services and what he’s currently got in the shop. Off we go.

Nguyen with Tashi Dorji and MANAS

Your playing is so powerful and note-dense at times that it can feel almost like a single, continuous sound. Is that something you’ve practiced and pursued deliberately?

Yeah, sort of. Some of it is nervousness, but also, I just like to play really fast. I’m not a very technical drummer. I was trained a little bit, but I’m mostly self-taught. I ended up working on playing very fast and loud, but also very precise. It’s a great way to get energy out and get lost in feeling the drums.

Are you using mostly single strokes?

Singles and doubles. I try to get a few triple strokes in there, but that doesn’t always work.

You’re also modifying your drums with small instruments and accessories. How did that come about?

Yeah, I collect random artifacts here and there. I just found this homemade cowbell at a secondhand shop. It’s really thin. That stuff just adds different textures, and makes me think about different rhythms so I break up the fast and loud thing.

I’m using a lot of different textures. I’ve got some pot lids that have different timbres, and I’ll usually have a few of those on the drums or snare with a muffler or something. I’ve also got a cowbell and a Korean meditation block on the floor tom. That gives me some different tonal options instead of relying on just big drum sounds.

[Author’s note: While we were discussing tones and textures, Nguyen pointed out that a few tables in particular at the site of our interview had a gamelan sort of sound when knocked with knuckles.]

Are the accessories consistent?

I’m always finding new pot lids and bells and random artifacts at thrift stores. I really like that stuff. Things change, but I usually keep something on the snare and the floor tom at least. Sometimes I keep chains or small bells on cymbals. I’ve got this rope with a bunch of small bells on it that I’ll swing around so they’re jangling.

I’m also using a few pot lids that I keep on the ground, and I’ve got these IKEA milk frothers that create a really loud drone when I leave them on the lids. Sometimes I’ll use that stuff for accents, or sometimes I’ll use bells with mallets to create a drone underneath everything.

Are there any players in particular that you think inspired the way you’re playing today?

Yeah, absolutely. I grew up with Nirvana and Dave Grohl. That’s where a lot of the intensity and the desire to play hard comes from. I love Chris Corsano. I think he’s one of the best free jazz drummers alive today. I’m also really into Rashied Ali. There’s another drummer named Tyler Damon who also plays with Tashi.

We’ve played with him a few times together. He’s incredible. Oh, and Jon Mueller. He has a project called Death Blues where he does solo percussion. I don’t know that there’s anyone else doing what he’s doing.

Are you playing a more traditional drum set when you play with other artists?

Yeah, I usually play a Gretsch kit with a 22” bass drum, 13” and 16” toms. Everything is tuned really low.

You recently started renting drums out locally to touring bands through Batteria Backline. Can you tell us a little about how that got started?

Well, it’s another excuse to have more drums. I already have a few kits, and I have relationships with most everyone at all the venues around here, so it seemed like a good way to help some people out and earn a little extra income. I’ve already started renting kits out the past few weeks. It’s been really nice. I also want to do repairs and restorations for people as part of the business as well.

What are you renting out now?

I’ve got a Gretsch Catalina Club that I found for $50. It’s got three rack toms and two floor toms. The wrap is chipped up, but it sounds perfect. I’ve got another little kit I put together with pieces that mainly came from Goodwill. That one has a 20” x 8” bass drum and an old Slinglerland marching drum that I converted to a floor tom. There’s a ’60s Slingerland kit, and I just bought a kit from Barton as well. Those drums sound great. The kick drum goes so low.

That was actually the first time I’d every purchased a new drum set. All my other drums have been used. That was a lot of fun.

What got you into refinishing and refurbishing?

I bought that Slingerland kit. It’s a ’65 with a sky blue pearl wrap that I found on Craigslist. Some of the wrap was cracked, and it wasn’t in great shape. I did some research about restoring, and then start pulling all the lugs off, polishing them, putting cotton behind the springs. I got pretty nerdy about it, and really enjoyed doing it.

What do you normally charge for a rental?

Usually $100 to $150. That includes me bringing the kit to the venue, setting it up, and then packing up and returning it. I’m trying to make it easy for touring drummers to just come in and play without anything else to worry about.