Scientists with soul: Moses Boyd on the drummers that shape his sound

By in Features, Label News





What happens when you grow up on Max Roach, Wiley and Aphex Twin?

It’s no secret that London has one of the most exciting young jazz scenes in the world right now. Driven by an open-minded, pluralistic spirit keen to reassert jazz’s roots as urban music, musicians like South London drummer Moses Boyd embody the city’s multi-faceted creative identity. Taking the music from recital halls and exclusive sessions to night clubs and festivals, the music formerly known as jazz is becoming more fully integrated with grime, hip-hop and dance music than ever before.

And when you’ve grown up on a diet as diverse as Max Roach, Wiley and Aphex Twin, it’s no surprise that what comes out speaks a wholly new language. The follow-up to his Four Tet & Floating Points-mixed breakthrough ‘Rye Lane Shuffle’, Moses Boyd is back with his second solo EP Absolute Zero on The Vinyl Factory. To mark the release, we caught up with the drummer and producer to find out what’s got him where he is today.

Take us back to your first steps in music. Where did it all start for you?

I didn’t come from a particularly musical family, so I started drums at about 13 or 14. Prior to that I hadn’t really played much or done anything serious on instruments. I didn’t go to a great school but luckily they had a really great music department. Initially I wanted to play saxophone, but I couldn’t play saxophone because they had too many in the school band at that time, so they gave me a euphonium, which is like a small tuba, which is not what anybody wants to play. And I was actually quite good at it, but I remember walking one day with it to the practice room and seeing somebody play drums in another room and was like ‘why am I playing this thing? I want to do that!”

What were the things that really took your interest at that age?

For me, I don’t know if there was one particular thing, but my teacher had loads of drum students and they were all trying to be Travis Barker. I spotted the difference early on between him and his students, basically the difference between a jazz drummer and a rock drummer in terms of technique and touch. When he stared showing me records by Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, I gravitated to that a lot more. And the more I got into it, the more it opened me up to other things. Getting into Tony Williams, tracing it from Tony Williams to Lifetime to John McLaughlin, and John played with Miles Davis, and then I was up to fusion, checking out Return To Forever, Lenny White, Alphonse Mouzon, all sorts of things. I spent years not really watching TV, just listening to records, soaking it up.

There’s obviously also a lot of influence coming from outside of jazz too?

From the very beginning I was interested in music technology and while I was playing drums, I was learning alongside that how to use Qbase, how to sequence, and I had another really good teacher, who was also in the field. Alongside learning how to be Max Roach, I don’t neglect the influence of just being from South East London around that time. Grime is happening, people like Wiley, Roll Deep and P Money. I’d go to my drum lesson and get my jazz and then I’d come out and someone would show me a video of Southside Allstars.

I was getting them both at the same time, while also learning how to record drums and sequence beats. People were showing me all sorts of producers, like Madlib, J Dilla, my teacher is putting me onto Jeff Buckley, Nine Inch Nails, Russell Elevado, learning why a drum kick sounds like that, how they used tape machines. I was getting into people like Björk and Aphex Twin, as well as the Soulquarians thing, and my teacher was really into Cuban percussion so showing me that too.

In short, a really broad palette…

I’ve always written music from the moment I started playing drums, so I’m soaking all these influences. I was getting such a wealth of music, that when it came to me creating my own thing, it wasn’t so much even about individual influences. I’m getting information from a drum perspective, from a mix perspective, from a production perspective. So I think that’s why when I put something out on Exodus I’m so interested in how it actually sounds.

From a production side of things you’re actively working on your own stuff too?

I prefer analogue, but that’s just me. I love things that have character and that aren’t quite right. The new EP Aboslute Zero is mainly built around analogue gear. If it’s slightly weird and it feeds back every now and again or you have to hit that key to make it work, beat it or leave it some time to warm up, I really like it!

Where does this new music fit into the work you’ve been doing? I imagine a lot of people quote ‘Rye Lane Shuffle’ at you a lot as the breakthrough moment…

For me my process has been unchanged. I always write music with no initial idea of where or how I’m going to put it out. Even something like ‘Rye Lane Shuffle’ I wrote in its raw form when I was like 17 but didn’t decide to record it until two years ago. Similarly with this music, some of it came together more recently and some were old ideas that I had floating about but never really found a space for.

Initially I was writing it for a solo set where it’s just me and a laptop in a club and I was basically trying to write a new set with no preconceived ideas. I was really getting into the sounds I could make with these pieces of gear and mixing it with drums and as I got a couple of tracks in it began to have a really cohesive sound because I was using the same gear and the same approach. It formed its own body of work.

It’s interesting that you talk already in terms of making music for a club environment, which is not somewhere traditionally associated with jazz. The success of Rye Lane Shuffle has been particularly instrumental in or indicative of how jazz in London is crossing over to a new audience. It feels like an integrated strain of urban music again, on a level with grime, hip-hip and dance music.

I’ve noticed it definitely change since I started playing drums and entered the “jazz world”. There’s always been great music happening but I think the scenes were very insular and separated. You either went raving, or you want to late night jam sessions. I can’t really explain why it’s happened, but I’m glad it’s happened, whether it’s someone like Nubya Garcia doing XOYO, or (what was) Yussef Kamaal, people like Dego & Kaidi doing Church Of Sound, myself doing Corsica studios.

At least for my part I’ve always been very aware from the start of where I chose to do gigs and how to push it in a certain market. Nowadays creators are more aware of how they market and brand their music and I think the infrastructure has caught up so there are more outlets for them to do that.

In the states, also having people like Kamasi Washington playing on Kendrick’s album is so present in such a mainstream way…

There was definitely a defining moment when To Pimp A Butterfly came where everyone realised that this is true. Nothing was the same after that, and I’m glad. And there were always questions like, why isn’t Kaidi like a UK Herbie Hancock, because he is. Why is this not seen as cool as the latest pop star? It’s changed and it’s great.

Let’s duck back a moment and catch up with your roots on the drums. Talk us through your five most influential drummers…

Max Roach

Max Roach was one of the first for me, early on. My drum teacher was showing me loads of drummers, and I’m sure I’m sure I’m not alone, but when you’ve never heard be-bop before aged 14, to me it didn’t make sense. That was until I heard Max Roach albums like Drums Unlimited, and I really understood it because he’s like a scientist with soul, if you know what I mean. It’s so clear, structured and precise and leaves no room for ambiguity and it’s amazing. Max was such a good foundation and it was what I needed, someone to structure that style of music for me to transcribe and learn from. He still is a massive influence. His records with Clifford Brown are amazing. Him and Clifford had such a synergy. Or on Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus.

Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta has kind of done everything under the sun. I had mad aspirations to be a session drummer, and I really respect the fact that he could throw the beat in any situation. He’s played with Frank Zappa, and everyone from Herbie Hancock to Joni Mitchell. I love and respecte his diversity and his fluidity to move between gigs. Not to mention he’s an insane drummer. It’s similar for me, I was getting the jazz and I wanted some of the fusion aspects to my playing too. He was a massive influence on me early on. His discography is so immense it’s hard ignore. I never liked doing the same thing twice and Vinnie to me was the embodiment of that.

Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts

Coming straight out of the Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey school of thought but from a fusion angle, Tain redefined the drum sound really. Playing with Wynton and Brandford Marsalis for years he defined the modern jazz quartet drum language. He is still such an archetypal figure, especially when you listen to how drummers play nowadays. I think Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. I by Wynton Marsaillas was the first jazz album that I bought for myself and I remember listening to ‘Autumn Leaves’ and not understanding how he was doing this metric modulation. It’s really complicated, but he makes it groove, changes time signature every bar up until the bridge and it fits perfectly in terms of the maths. When you’re listening to it you’re like, “There’s something crazy going on here”. He’s another one, who with Max, made the science of it funky. He’s so complex as to how he chooses to displace beats, but he always grooves. I don’t think I try to sound like Tain, but it’s definitely in there.

Roy Haynes

Roy Haynes is interesting because he’s a bit older than Max but he’s still alive now and still playing great drums. And if you look at his discography he’s played with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Jimi Hendrix. The amount of music that man has seen, it’s insane. What is interesting to me is how his drums sound. You listen to his records with Andrew Hill like Black Fire and Smoke Stack. Rudy Van Gelder man, he smashed it! But Roy’s drums still sound like that today. The way he tunes his bass drum to have its own resonant tone, it’s like a note that just penetrates through the mix constantly. And his touch on the snare drum is so crisp. His cymbals are so bright, which is interesting for wa jazz drummer because jazz drummers are always trying to be dark and cool. He was so loose and fluid and electrifying at the same time. I don’t know whether I’ve got that yet, but I want to have my own voice with the drums.

Ed Blackwell

Ed Blackwell played with Ornette Coleman and he’s from New Orleans where they’ve got a great tradition of amazing drummers. Him and Vernel Fournier, who played with the Ahmad Jamal Trio, have very similar sounds. They’re from the street, man, they know how to do parades. The rhythm is so in there. Coming out of the jazz canon from be-bop til Coltrane the rhythm section was hinged around that “ting ting te ting” and walking bass hook-up. What stood out for me about Ed Blackwell is how on ‘T. & T.’ from the Ornette! album he does it but never does it. He almost uses the toms as his “ting ting te ting,” but he’s not playing “ting ting te ting,” if that makes sense? He’s adding his own grid of how to propel the groove, but not using the high end, using the mids and lows. It’s weird, on a phonic level you’d think playing mid and low end would muddy the bass, but it never feels unclean.

To me he’s one of the unsung heroes of polyrhythmic playing. People talk about Elvin [Jones] a lot, and as much as I love him, when you really analyse Elvin, I can’t really say it’s polyrhythms. He’s got triplet feels going along, which is amazing, but it’s not really like a polyrhythm. Whereas when you listen to Ed Blackwell on ‘T. & T.’ you’ve got like four independent rhythms happening at once. He went and studied somewhere in West Africa and you can hear how he’s mixed that in with his New Orleans street drum tradition, as well as taking Max Roach solos and making them as angular as he can. He really opened me up to the way you use the snare drum and the kick drum and the high-hat. There’s no reason why the snare drum has to be where it is in the mix or on the two and four. It doesn’t have to be how everyone does it. You can mix it up, so why not try something different?

Moses Boyd’s Absolute Zero is released on 12″ vinyl on 5th August. Pre-order your copy here.

Moses Boyd portraits: Eddie Otchere