Jojo Mayer: Spontaneous Creation

From the January 2016 issue of DRUM! | By Joe Bosso

“Too many musicians are driven by fear,” Jojo Mayer says at the beginning of our chat. The groundbreaking drummer and leader of the New York City-based “live-electronic” four-piece band Nerve is leading into a conversation about the group’s just-released third album, Ghosts Of Tomorrow, with something that sounds akin to a mission statement.

“If you allow yourself to be ruled by fear, worrying what people will accept or if what you’re doing will sell, you won’t innovate because you’ll always be second-guessing yourself,” he elaborates. “That’s no way to live your life, and it’s certainly no way to make music. If you don’t want to take that big step forward, you’ll never join the legacy of Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong, or Duke Ellington and the Beatles. You’ll never create something new.”

Innovating, pushing the envelope, and indulging in outright musical subversion have long been the raison d’etre for the Zurich-born Mayer, who turned heads as a member of such bands as the Screaming Headless Torsos, Depart, and the Intergalactic Maiden Ballet, and who also led the quirky sonic pranksters Prohibited Beatz from 1994 to 2001. His “reverse engineering” approach to drumming, a crafty mash-up of the Moeller stroke, the heel-toe kick drum technique, and “pull-out/push-pull” accent rebounds, along with his pioneering ability to perform electronic-oriented patterns on an acoustic kit, has made the 52-year-old New York City transplant one of the most studied sticksmen on the planet. His first instructional DVD, Secret Weapons For The Modern Drummer, was a massive seller, and he recently issued the appropriately named sequel, Secret Weapons For The Modern Drummer – Part II.

All of which makes it makes it more than a little surprising when Mayer points out that he never took a drum lesson in his life. “It’s true, no lessons,” he states. “I learned how to play drums by listening and transcribing Billy Cobham and Tony Williams. I got really good at imitating their playing — it became very natural. I carried that over to electronic music, emulating and imitating things that a program played.”

Mayer recalls the strong responses he received from listeners upon first hearing his “live-electronic” approach to drumming. “They were like, ‘What the f*** is going on here?” he chuckles. “People just assumed that such a thing wasn’t possible. And what’s funny is, I was able to create a magical atmosphere for people who had never really heard live drumming before — they only knew electronic music. By taking the drums out of their normal context, I learned more about how they can function as a vehicle for experimentation. I was able to go on the same sonic experience as the listeners.”

“Reverse engineering” was the order of the day when Mayer and his Nerve bandmates (bassist John Davis, keyboardist Jacob Bergson, and sound processor Aaron Nevezie) convened at their Brooklyn home base, the Bunker, to record Ghosts Of Tomorrow. As they’ve done since 2010’s EP1, the band dispensed with proper demos and even full sketches of songs in favor of sifting through hours of live recordings they’d compiled over the course of a year to isolate what they considered to be kernels of ideas. After jamming for three days and deciding on which material to keep, they spent three more days hammering out arrangements and adding overdubs. “On the seventh day, we mixed what we had,” Mayer says. “Our intention was pretty pure and simple: We wanted to take a snapshot of where we were when we started to see how that picture changed when we finished.”

While the 11 tracks on Ghosts Of Tomorrow combine elements of dubstep, electro, minimal house, and old-school jungle, the overarching idea behind much of the album was to be as ungenre-specific as possible. Mayer points to the bracing opening track ‘Triptych” as a true Frankenstein of styles. “It was assembled from three different ideas,” he explains. “It all started when John and I were jamming. We didn’t have the keyboards at first. It was a little linear, a broken half-time feel with a 12/8 section at the end. We wanted something breakbeat-ish, with a bit of a dubstep and jungle tech kind of vibe. At the same time, we didn’t want to get locked into any boxes. In the past, we would say, ‘Let’s do something dubsteppy.’ Now we’ve gotten away from all that. Everything feels fresh and in the moment.”

That same air of spontaneity informs the exhilarating, high-energy title cut, a slapdash montage of soundscapes built around some of Mayer’s most frenetic and fluid drumming yet. “We took the template from something we did live,” he says. “We had a couple of choruses from a very long jam and replicated them in the studio. We had a keyboard hook, and then we added a B section and played it in seven to give it a loopy feeling. But again, we didn’t want it to sound preconceived; we wanted it to feel immediate and direct.”

The song “Halif” began as something of a Pink Floyd homage and morphed into a cavernous tone poem once Mayer recruited a friend, Iranian superstar Mohsen Namjoo, to contribute vocals. The drummer sounds positively astonished recounting how Namjoo came to the studio totally cold and turned in not one, but two dramatic performances. “He didn’t know what we were doing at all, and he just killed it!” Mayer enthuses. “His lyrics were written by somebody else — I think they’re over 100 years old. They’re about a boy trying to become a man, and he goes through incredible hardships, like sleeping in his own blood. It’s very moving stuff, and it fit the song beautifully.”

The minimalist “Instead I Grew Wings” presents listeners with perhaps the album’s grandest “Is it real or is it Memorex?” drumming moment. Mayer laughs and swears that the drums are all live, but he acknowledges that the parts, which were written by Davis, proved formidable in the studio. “John isn’t a drummer, so what he came up with was very undrum-like,” Mayer notes. “It’s linear, but the notes fit in very strange places. At first, it felt unnatural to me, like it was something a drummer would never play. But I liked the challenge of it, putting myself upside-down conceptually.”

“Reverse engineering” Ghosts Of Tomorrow will take on its final form once the band begins performing the songs in concert. As Mayer describes it, “It’s like the last chapter of a book, but it’s almost like a new edition. The songs started from improvisations on stage. We consolidated them and processed them, and now we’re unleashing them into the wild.” He pauses, then adds, “I often wonder if songs are ever really done. It’s like what I said about snapshots: We’re really just taking pictures of our journey. Each shot is where we are on any given day.”