Name: Dan Drohan
Occupation: Drummer, producer, composer, visual artist
Current Release: Dan Drohan's You’re A Crusher/ drocan! can be bought on his bandcamp page.
Recommendations: ‘Here, There, and Everywhere’ - Geoff Emerick; ‘Arcana’ - John Zorn
If you enjoyed this interview with Dan Drohan, find out more about him on his homepage, which includes background information, music, videos and recent updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I’m not quite sure, that’s a good question.
I remember as a young child listening to The Jackson 5, Elvis, and Mickey Mouse. My siblings and I would make these funny cassettes with a silly toy recorder. Getting into drumming around age 7, I really dug Metallica … and then different music from compilation CDs like Jock Jams, Eiffel 65 … I think it was an energy I felt from the music that drew me to particular things and also the drums themselves, being loud and interesting. Drummers were always so cool to me.
As for producing albums, it started to happen more seriously at around 12 years old, when my friend Luke and I formed our first ever band. At the time we started really getting into punk and rock ... The Clash, Offspring, AC/DC and Blink-182, of course. We recorded our first album at a studio in the basement of a dentist office.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
With a lot of the education I pursue or have experienced over the course of my life, whether it be learning from teachers, or learning from a book, or just listening and absorbing music or art, I try to have it be something that develops as I internalize it. There’s a respect I may have for other artists that makes me first desire to understand what’s happening and then I usually think “that’s cool, how would I myself do that? Or how would I say that same message but in my own words?” It just will just never feel genuine for me to copy anything verbatim. If I broke it down I think the way I usually absorb is somewhat complex. I don’t want to be too conscious of it honestly. If I like something I’ll try to find out about it or just carry it around with me, in my soul. Then I export ideas naturally, as they’re coming out.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
One fun challenge was just recording and actually producing technically on my own. Much of the producing I have done in the past would be a situation where I would be communicating with an engineer what I was hearing or seeing and they would be physically operating the board and protools. But when you are just you and your laptop, it forces you to get creative as the producer composer AND engineer. Especially has a composer who’s first a drummer/percussionist.
Sometimes, compositionally I’m trying to chase ideas that may or may not be musical ideas at their root. I may go through a lot of hoops just to end up with something that will sound straightforward to a listener, but I know there is great depth there. Producing can be about adding to this giant snowball collecting mass as it rolls down the hill and when it reaches the bottom of the hill it may have lost a lot of mass but gained these interesting rocks or a snowboarder on the side haha.
My goals in art are to achieve any one of these creative ideas technically somehow. Whether it be using an old radiator for a drum or lighting my computer on fire. I had a great teacher at school, Linda Chase, who would have us sit in a room with the lights off and play improvised as she read us Edgar Allen Poe!
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your setup evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
Every time my life has shifted, it’s caused more reflection on a “setup” or what can and can’t be something I rely on. Drums have been a constant for the most part. A physical piece of gear that’s been with me at different points of my life. The evolution of it alone has taken me to so many different territories in music, through focusing on what kinds of sticks I’m using or certain drums. Studio spaces evolve drastically over the course of one’s life. Which always puts a refresher on your perspective with what gear you are using and why. I love that. Growing pains ha-ha.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I try to be creative and think outside the box with how I use technology. Not sure why, but it’s never been something I think has to be by the rule book. The way I learned how to use Logic for instance was just by figuring it out on a basic level, and not reading the manual per se. In diving into technology like that, there are pros and cons of course. Although I want technology to be a positive vessel between my creativity and an actualization of concepts, there is always a divide I keep with it and real life.
Even in the sense of drumming. Drums are acoustic and I don’t need any laptop or electricity to elevate it. It’s definitely a tricky balance for me of using and not using my laptop or technology. I think about the balance of it every day and more often than not the presence of technology distracts from the essence of a moment, living truly in a moment, harvesting gratitude where a sense of peace can happen.
Don’t get me wrong though, what I have gained and learned through technology and even just recording remotely or using technology to connect with humans etc. is all very important to me.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My life has been built upon a long relationship and practice of the drums and rhythm, so for a majority of compositional writing I have been doing in the last few years, it’s been deriving from a drum recording or concept usually. One cool aspect that I run into using Logic is that I will sometimes just work off the grid. It creates an interesting effect that you can’t really get from concerning yourself with things you may do to the recording later. Also, the art that I like to make is more transparent to the audience. I like to make a recording of me key typing on the laptop as a drum track for instance. Or I want people to sense a location or leaving the click on when I bounce the masters because it’s part of writing to me.
I think this I learned initially through the drums. Conducting sounds from the drum, from a stick, from my hand, from my mind, all being controlled by my heart. I want that to always be as transparent as it can be.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
All of the above! I’ve always known music to be a connection between people. People who know me closely, know that I love talking about music and ideas A LOT. I love introducing ideas from outside of music. Trying to figure it all out together with others is what makes it really spontaneous and fun so much of the time. It’s also a challenge to work in so many different ways. I could be file sharing on one recording and going to a studio for another record and just conceiving a release with a label buddy. Each project has its process which in turn shapes its artistic features.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Well as much as I try to have a routine, it’s sort of impossible. I have gotten used to that over course of my life at this point. I do my best with getting to the warming up or studio every day.
But honestly my family comes first and drums are a very close second. Each day is navigating through that balance and getting my work done for both in a way that leaves me feeling accomplished or proud at night. That’s hard to achieve when you put a lot on your plate but I’m constantly trying to find out how to do that more routinely … as much as each day will allow.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I think my latest album, “You’re A Crusher/ drocan!” really encapsulates a pretty wide view of my creativity in a way that satisfies me mostly. The ideas almost always are just coming from the heart, so to feel that it is dear to me is not a stretch. I feel for most things I create in that way though. YAC/drocan! has a particularly interesting culmination of processes and bits of life documented within it.
I wrote some of it while I was playing with Olden Yolk, in tour vans across the US and Europe and when I was on an airplane to India on way to tour with Sid Sriram. I had worked on it with my laptop in my kitchen in Brooklyn in the early morning. I recorded it with musicians from my band élan in an apartment in Bushwick. I carried around ideas when I moved to Massachusetts, and recorded more ideas that ended up on there. I formed Drocan with Mike Cantor after moving to mass and linking up with him for the very first time. I was inspired by a lot of different things. My family was growing. My brother in law had just moved to Tokyo. It carries things from a 2-3 year period for me. I worked on some of it to a satisfying end point. I included ‘KENO’ that is an improvisation with Mike Cantor from one of our sessions. Refining is a complicated concept for me. Some songs I felt that I was trying to make an end result sound like what most people consider a refined musical product these days. But how would they know ha-ha.
I love raw sounds and raw concepts. The Beatles always feel raw to me. So refining doesn’t necessarily mean perfecting or making every nook polished. But if that’s what I want then I WILL do that. It just depends on what I’m feeling like is the goal behind what I’m making.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I usually wonder at the center of every recording if it should be conceived as a piece based on this idea of a band performing or just creating a world without limitations. I love them both and each experience in music teaches a tremendous amount if you’re willing to learn. Playing live has a forgiving quality to it, and I’m always in the moment, improvising, or reacting in real time, even when it’s a ‘play these parts every time’ situation. There is an energy you can get from recording things that aren’t achievable live.
For instance, the song “Pictured” off YAC/ drocan! is written with sounds from camera footage on a trip to Mexico, plus a few other drums mixed in and vocals etc ... But what I hear is the sum of all its parts, almost as one big melody. The concept for that wouldn’t be performable in a stereotypical band context. The romantic side of performing live for me is more of a traditional relationship with delivering a performance and leaving all you have there on stage for people to witness. Usually you are only playing for 30 mins or an hour and a half, so it’s your one moment to experience that exultation through playing. You have to constantly overcome how you just played a second ago and move forward.
With recording, you have a day if you’d like. You can try things out and judge them and come back to them or save them or whatever. Which actually makes it harder to be elevated in the moment. It takes a lot of energy to stay there the whole time. The goal might be abstract too. Like “Pictured”. The goal is to reach a feeling and a textural landscape that I somehow was feeling or hearing and needed to pursue. While being guided by technology or some weird internal process I captured on a particular session. It can be a bit more of an elusive of a journey, which is what makes it fun!
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I love toying with sound design verses normal songwriting territory of today’s music. I see pop music being able to be a drum set made out of sounds that are whales crying for the snare and a baby crying for the kick ha-ha. But I’m traditionalist as well so I feel it’s important to include not just what’s been discovered now but really documenting all of my sonic and compositional influences from all era’s and cultures that I have so far discovered.
“CUPOFDRO” - that song has real drums, samples, organ, and compositionally I have a pop form there plus a jazz approach to how I recorded it, plus a sound design field that reminds me of electronic influences of the 90’s-2000’s, it has overdubs, it has a hip hop influenced feel, it has a real live performance ... It really showcases what I have absorbed over years of listening to music and designed for a specific composition, that I’m not sure I could have predicted was going to end up sounding like it does.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Stories, or feelings, or visuals or actions or something that hasn’t been described yet are all things that inspire me to make a piece of music. One of my favorite things about it all is that you can combine a variety of different inspirations from anywhere and impose them in one song setting. Things from a particular moment in the studio or that day, then a lyric about a totally different thing. And have it placed together. Things that surprise me when combined are the most fun. That to me is closer to what reality feels like to me. Very bizarre even though it seems all systematic in ways.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art is something that I considered at a young age. It has more or less been a part of me in a way that doesn’t seem too preconceived. The older I’ve gotten the more it becomes something to show others or to deliver as a product for others to enjoy. But that’s not a bad thing at all. It is just a realization. I feel that I have been an artist since I was born, we likely all are. It’s really just expressing yourself in ways that can be quantified and understood by others so you can communicate whatever you feel it is you want to communicate. I always have desired to be nothing other than being honest with myself and because of that, the art will also be honest. All the drumming I’ve done on others’ music, even when it’s just a subtle solid timekeeping part, I am feeling it and how its moving through me and how I’m communicating with it in that specific time and space, and what I am communicating to other people.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I don’ t. My favorite music is still Bach.