BY PHIL HOOD
When Daft Punk went to record the album Random Access Memories in 2012 the duo of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Cristo decided to go in a completely different direction than they had on previous recordings: they used live musicians in the recording studio. Not just any musicians but the best: John “JR” Robinson, Omar Hakim, bassist Nathan East, guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers. Their goal was to bring the “soul” that live musicians can create to dance music recordings. To get that feeling they also felt the need to record things in a the manner of the great albums of the ‘70s and ‘80s they loved. As Bangalter told NPR, “There’s a certain craftsmanship in recording music in studios that is gradually disappearing and we thought that this was maybe a sad thing for this craftsmanship to disappear.”
It’s one thing to discover the soul of your product. It’s another to see it manifest itself through a user’s experience. The best part is when the soul is embodied in the experience of your users
– Damian Madray
I thought about this entwined issue of soul and craftsmanship recently while discussing drum building with Bill Detamore of Pork Pie Percussion. How do you keep the soul in a product when you grow the scale of the business; when you try to increase the production run, or the speed with which it is produced? It’s a dilemma for people making any product, from cars, to spaghetti sauce, to recordings, to musical instruments like drums, guitars, and violins.
For many builders craftsmanship is part of the answer. It’s part of the process of imparting soul. Craftsmanship means doing things the right way, and paying attention to how something gets built even when no one is looking. It means caring about every aspect of building. But usually, this has a price. If craftsmanship costs money, then the less money and time you spend on production, the less soul is in the product, right? I don’t actually think this is always the case.
Yes, we’ve all had the experience of buying something that was a complete piece of junk which fell apart soon after we got it. Or going to a restaurant chain that seems as if no one cares any longer about the cleanliness of the joint or the quality of the food. These products are orphans on whom no one invested soul in their manufacture. At the same time I’ve owned lots of mass-produced or machine-made products with soul, from a certain 1974 Toyota I’ll never forget, to some teak chairs that were made in an Indonesian factory a century ago, to every Led Zeppelin album I ever bought. My brother owns a ’62 Telecaster with sustain so sweet that you’d have to buy a $10,000 hand-made guitar to find anything close to it.
Detamore straddles these dilemmas of custom drum building as well as anyone. He built his company partly on the basis of his unique sensibility, starting with the name Pork Pie and his custom paint jobs. But he has built one-off drums and mass produced foreign-built snare drums for customers such as Guitar Center. He’s built lines of drums for other companies, working most recently with Rogers. He’s built drums from the ground up in the US and imported foreign shells and parts in order to finish drums in the US and sell them at a price point that would have been impossible to do with all-domestic construction.
But Detamore believes deeply in soul and craftsmanship no matter what product he is building. He and his small team of experienced craftspeople, including Tony, Gus, Jose, and lately his son Zac, plus others, put a lot of handwork into the drums (and thrones) they sell, regardless of where materials were sourced.
“I want myself and my guys to touch each drum as much as humanly possible,” Detamore says. I’d call that trying to put soul in the product.
At Pork Pie they build their own jigs and tools, drill holes by hand, and cut bearing edges the same way. Each drum is different, Detamore points out, because every builder in his shop is a unique personality. “I show them how I do it,” he says, but he knows they impart something of their own into each drum the company ships.
Professional-quality musical instruments require handmade attention and intention whether they come from the biggest firms or the smallest. And they differ from most products in that they also function as art. A violin or snare drum is an artistic artifact in a way digital cameras and tennis balls never will be.
I’d be interested to hear from builders out there what they think about soul and craftsmanship. What is it that puts “soul” in your product? What are the elements such as skill, tools, materials, attitude, and a reverent attitude toward music and musicians, that motivate you to put yourself into every product? What is it you value? Tell me about it, and we’ll share it in a future post.
Winners, Yes, I’ve Got Winners
The four winners in the Headhunters Sticks and Creations Giveaway are Bruce Brand, Gene Waddy, Steve Douglas, and a entrant I know only by the handle “Lightning Strikes.” Next week we’re going to announce giveaways of a custom tambourine and other prizes. You’re automatically entered if you comment below or drop me a line here. See you then.