Thievery Corporation's Jeff Franca On Why Drummers Should Write Songs | Steve Such Drums
Why Write a Song?
By: Jeffrey “Congo” Franca
As drummers, we hold the key to what makes a song unique, funky, groovy, out, in… whatever the desired affect for the given song might be. The beats, timing and song structures that are instilled in us from the beginning of our time as drummers create the vibe that listeners (and musicians alike) physically react to in their bodies when listening to music.
Many producers are good with chords, aesthetic, SOUND, but often ask for real high hats, or a layer of live drums to give a natural feel to a wonky electronic beat. Not all electronic beats are meant to feel natural however, and that is where our knowledge and programming of our own brain to understand the swing of a groove, or the emphasis of a beat, automatically give us an advantage in the studio and with electronic music production.
WRITE A SONG
This is why my three words of advice to drummers are, “WRITE A SONG.” We already provide what every song needs naturally based on our musical existence: the groove! So if you can harness what it takes to write a song; lyrics, form, harmony, melody, bass line, VIBE, then you can express yourself to the fullest because you already have the most important part down... The Rhythm! The rhythm is what allows us to make music with other people and to bring listeners together into a collective experience.
Clearly, there are many benefits for drummers taking part in the song writing process from the perspective of being a musician/composer/producer first. I will rank three key points and describe a little bit about my own song writing process.
Taking bronze on this list, because we all have to eat, (drum roll please.......) BUSINESS! All drummers should be producers; not only producers but founders of original projects with committed musicians and friends. I believe they call these groups of people “bands"? A band is a business. Being in a band is the best calling card one can have.
A couple of years back, Adam Deitch tweeted a list of forbes 30 richest living drummers: http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2012/08/who-are-the-worlds-richest-drummers.html
All 30 names were drummers from successful bands that have been committed over the years. Some drummers bounce around here and there and do some session work. Sometimes we don’t even get the gig until the first drummer quits or even worse, dies in a freak gardening accident that authorities deem better left unsolved, or decides to become a doctor, or go to law school, or even takes up the guitar and tries to be a frontman/woman. Excluding death, all of these reasons stem from why we are talking about this in the first place, BUSINESS.
If you take a second and look at the list, it doesn’t take long to realize why the top 4 drummers are who they are:
#4 - DON HENLEY
Number four is Don Henley. Don Henley is/was the drummer for the Eagles. I know, “ Anything but the Eagles man,” but still. Five number one hits is not bad. Also, if you know how the business works, when you write a song you own more of the royalties. If you sing that song then you get even more. If you play drums on a TV show, you get less money in royalties than if your voice was to be heard over a broadcast. I know it’s not fair but that’s how it works. Let’s just say The Eagles could sing, all of them, but Don Henley, the drummer, was also sometimes the lead singer as well. So his songwriting within the Eagles led to him gaining more monetary returns from the royalties paid for performing and distributing their music.
Ok, so 5 number one hits with your band and you are good to go? Sorry but no. Not only did Don Henley contribute to more than just the groove of the Eagles music, he also released 5 records on his own as a frontman, all of which peaked in the top 50 of the U.S. Charts.
So here is our model: A founding creative member of an uber successful band followed by a successful solo career. Let’s think about who the remaining drummers are in the first three slots. Got it yet? Yes, you are correct.
#3 - DAVE GROHL
Number three is Dave Grohl, the drummer from Nirvana. Dave did not sing lead in Nirvana the way that Don Henley did for the Eagles, but Nirvana did also achieve 5 number one hits. It’s what Dave did after Nirvana that kept him in the running and put him as the number three most valuable living drummer. The Foo Fighters, founded by Dave after the death of Kurt Cobain, featured the drummer stepping out from behind the kit picking up a guitar and singing. Since then, the band has sold 9,450,000 copies of 8 full-length albums. Once again, drummer from an uber successful band takes to the front of the stage with their own band and BOOM! Good Business.
#2 - PHIL COLLINS
The second most valuable drummer still walking the earth is, you guessed it, Phil Collins. Phil’s band Genesis broke ground as a progressive fusion of rock, jazz and popular music of the 1970’s. Like Henley, Phil shared the vocal responsibilities with his bandmates in Genesis, who achieved 6 number one records in the U.K., and most importantly developed a cult following of musicians and listeners that sought out their more complex approach to composition.
This following, as it did for the aforementioned “drum-miliionares” allowed him to launch a long and successful solo career where he achieved number one status for 3 of his songs and “In The Air Tonight” isn’t even one of them! Proving yet again that writing songs is the key to a long and successful career. Any ideas on the number one most valuable drummer in the world? One hint. He was in the most popular band of all time.
#1 - RINGO STARR
With The Beatles, Ringo had songs where he was featured as the lead vocalist and received writing credit. “Yellow Submarine” even went to number one . We have already talked about how singing and songwriting can contribute to the success of a musician. Since Ringo is a Beatle, his writing contributed to his enormous success as a musician. As a side note, Ringo also took on fictional roles as himself and other characters in T.V. and Film (A model now sought after by many musicians). His band, “Ringo and his All Starr Band,” still tours and sells out venues all over the world. Proof that even if you aren’t the frontman or woman, writing songs and creating music on your own leads to a more fruitful career (in Ringo’s case, roughly $300 million worth of “fruit.”).
Clearly, business is boosted when you have more of a stake in what is going into the music. Continuing on to the Second most beneficial trait picked up by drummers who also write songs, lets talk about what you learn about the writing process from writing music of your own.
UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS
Taking silver in our trials of the drummer-turned-musician is the understanding that one achieves regarding the process that other musicians and song writers go through when realizing their work.
Part of the success we talked about earlier was the idea that teaming up and collaborating with people to form committed bands is part of creating a livable model for a musician. This means you must be able to not only tolerate but contribute to a collective idea. A concept that is agreed upon and loved equally by more than one person.
Wow! Sounds like a relationship or something. Well, it is. Singers have to come up with lyrics, melodies, harmonies, TOPICS!! Everybody else in the band is there to support the song which in turn supports the singer. The occasional solo or feature is always cool, but until each bandmember has to write their own song, they will never know what it’s like to have the responsibility of being the lead.
We all know what a diva is. Not that it’s bad thing (anybody can turn into one at anytime) BUT, the more you understand about the diva’s situation, the more you can deal with their respective issues. Basically, in my opinion, you can’t really get bent out of shape about somebody not having an immediate idea, or not feeling a certain beat, or needing to write in certain key because that happens to everybody!!! You have to look at yourself through the same lens and then the creative process becomes a more understanding one. Allowing for more creative juices to flow and the vibes to be right for creating the music. This goes for all instruments, in both directions.
A singer might want a drummer to play a certain beat that is new to them and it might take a certain amount of shedding to get correct. The last thing you want when you are trying to figure out something new is for someone to be unsupportive and non-understanding while you are trying to get it down. Church musicians are surrounded by a controlled environment of positivity and encouragement. People believing in them, literally. This might be why some of the baddest musicians grew up playing in church. They were not just surrounded by musical greatness and tradition, but a congregation of appreciation and encouragement. These characteristics can be achieved outside of church, in your garage, basement, school, practice room, studio, anywhere where you are making music.
Drummers who know what its like to come up with a chord progression, or a hook, or a bass line, can exist easier in an environment where people are carrying out these very practices because they can relate to the person who is working through the music. That being said, our final and most beneficial thought about why writing songs is crucial for drummers ends up being a direct result of this understanding nature that we have just talked about.
THE SONG COMES FIRST
The ultimate benefit that drummers obtain by writing songs is the fact that once you are thinking about the song first, and the drums as just part of the song, you better your understanding of what the song needs from you, the DRUMMER! There is nothing worse than sitting through a band’s performance when the drummer (or any musician for that matter) takes away from the music by overplaying. It can happen in many ways: volume, drum selection, cymbal selection, or just TOO MANY NOTES.
Transversely, you never hear somebody say “great band, but terrible drummer.” The drummer’s job is to hold the groove, set the tempo, and tastefully accent the music to their technical/musical ability. Not all music is meant for shredders. Some of my favorite music contains elements of virtuosity blended with purpose and culture. This purpose and culture are the denominators that depict the acceptable vocabulary and function of the music in any given setting.
Taking time to learn all of the parts is how one gains the knowledge of how important their actual part is. In Afro-Cuban Rumba, the clave is the time indicator. Once you understand where the clave is, then you start hearing the actual melodies of the drums and vocals. It’s what tells the dancers and musicians where they are in the groove.
This concept holds true for ALL MUSIC. There is always something that keeps the boat afloat. It could be the vocals. It could be the bass line. It could be the drum beat. We all know at least one song that starts with drums and right away you know what song it is based solely on the beat! This is how you became a great drummer. Understanding all parts of the music and being able to react and express yourself within the vibe of what is going on.
The question is, “How do you go about learning about all of the aspects of the music that you are into?” The answer I have for you is, write your own song in that vein or style and gather the knowledge that the other contributing musicians have gained on there own instruments for their own parts. Then and only then will your part make the most sense. This leads me to some thoughts that I have on my own song writing process, and how I go about exploring the different channels of the creative process when making music.
MY WRITING PROCESS
If you have read what I have written so far on this topic, then you have heard me talk about a few things consistently. These are the foundational aspects that different musics contain: Melody, Harmony, Rhythm, Bass Line, Subject Matter, Technique, Cultural Purpose, Vibe, Sound, and Instrumentation. All of these musical characteristics are what I think about when making a song.
The goal is to get to the point where you aren’t even thinking about these things and you are just channeling your existence into your music. As a composer, I feel as though one of my responsibilities is to document the vibrations of my time here on earth. Music is a sonic representation of life. This is why different cultures and different regions of the world have there own rhythms and compositional structure to their music. I for one believe that the latitude and longitude contribute greatly to how we perceive sonic frequencies. I also believe that altitude has something to do with why certain music is the way it is. We are just antennae for musical vibrations that are constantly around to transmit through. When that antenna moves, it picks up different vibrations.
That being said, knowing what you like (and what you are trying to do with your music) is the first step in writing a song. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole “I’m going to make a song like this” or, “check out the progression in this song, lets use this with a different beat.” The void of unoriginality is vast.
It is important to practice making something that you did not preconceive. Bob Weir from The Grateful Dead talks about following the music THROUGH a composition as in, once you hear a riff, you can then hear what that riff is lending itself to, or where the vibe of the rest of the song wants to go.
This is why I like to listen back from the top, A LOT, when creating original music. Starting playback half way through a song won’t give you the full idea of what a moment needs or where the next section needs to go because your frame of reference is not accurate.
These days, a lot of successful musicians are making music on their laptops with headphones on. A lot of solo artists using technology to create their “band.” As long as the purpose is there than I see nothing wrong with this. Personally I like to write by myself but there is nothing like working out some tunes with other humans. You learn more about yourself and about others this way. But don’t get me wrong, a day of nothing but beat-making/songwriting on my own is part of how I stay insane. Oops did I say that wrong? I meant sanely insane, or whatever you get it. We all have our quirks. That is why we need to be writing music.
DRUMMERS… GO WRITE SOME MUSIC!
The differences we all share are what create the beauty of the world. I believe that as a musician, you owe it to yourself and to the world around you to put yourself into your music. Understand yourself, and the musicians around you. Know what you like. Take care of business. Strive for success.
The best way to do that? Write a song.
THANKS FOR READING!
Each week, I select one person from the video "100 RULES FOR DRUMMERS” and write an article based on the three-word rule they offered. This week's rule: WRITE A SONG. My goal is to provide questions, thought experiments, and specific action steps you can take in order to improve both your DRUMMING and LIFE!
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