Greg Fox’s Cyborg Drum Compositions Feel Impossible
The New York musician's new record 'The Gradual Progression' finds him using new technology walk the tightrope between man and machine.
Photo by Ebru Yildiz
Greg Fox has referred to his current drum setup as "magical," which sounds hyperbolic until you see it in action. Sitting behind a acoustic kit set up in the bedroom of his Brooklyn apartment, he offers a demonstration, slowly at first. Over the course of the next few minutes, he'll hit the center of a snare slowly and a series of randomly pitched metallic pings rumble from a nearby set of studio monitors in unison with the taut wack of the drum head. He hits the rim several times and synthetic pops, like rupturing Candy Crush bubbles, erupt from the speakers. A thump of the kick drum triggers a fragment of a sampled drum loop. A tom hit can call up a saxophone solo.
He explains that he's able to accomplish this bit of alchemy through a technology called Sensory Percussion. Invented by Tlacael Esparza, the system uses magnets placed on a drum head to translate drum vibrations into MIDI signal, which Fox can use to control a modular synthesizer setup or samples that he's loaded into Ableton. He pauses a second and then plays it all together, tearing through the underbrush of a dense forest of sounds.
Sitting just a few feet from his bed in a t-shirt and track pants, he seems relaxed as he plays, but he explores the space unimaginably quickly. Sensory Percussion aside, it's always been visually hard to track the athletic rolls and time-blurring beats he unfurls behind the kit. But things get even weirder when he introduces the electronics into his setup—deftly battering different regions of a single drum head he hums and bounces from sound to sound, fluttering like the wings of a pollen-drunk butterfly looping from bud to bud. It's borderline impossible to track what parameters each section of a drum controls, even if you wanted to—dizzy a game of sleight of hand and misdirection. Why's a babbling synth patch ringing out now? Where's that horn coming from? It's magic, basically.
Fox has spent the past years developing a style of playing that seems both easy and impossible at the same time. He credits the start of this impulse to a time he spent working in a music store with a drummer named Guy Licata who was hell bent on playing the maniacally fast sampled breaks of jungle and drum and bass live. Fox attempted some of that himself, but quickly got wrapped, as many young drummers do, into playing for basically every one of his friends' bands. Luckily for him, his friends were making some of New York's weirdest and most innovative mutations of heavy music. Over the years, he's played with Guardian Alien and Zs and Liturgy and PC Worship and Ben Frost and Colin Stetson and Hieroglyphic Being and Man Forever and Skeletons...you should just go to his website, honestly. The discography page there requires a lot of scrolling.
Fox has always had an impulse toward making electronic music, dating back to when he first acquired a synthesizer/drum machine combo after high school. Over the years, he's also composed warped and noisy recordings as GDFX (His last album under that moniker also came with an impressive technological conceit: Mitral Transmission used biological data from his own body to control electronic instruments.) Lately, he's taken to performing out with his modular setup, wringing whatever sounds and textures he can from the rig. Until now, his electronic material been a separate world from his drumming, but Sensory Percussion allowed him to bring those two sides of his work together.
On September 8, he released a record on RVNG Intl called The Gradual Progression, which is the first recorded document of his efforts with Sensory Percussion. Over the course of that record's six pieces, he explores greyscale ambient landscapes, insectoid funk, cosmic jazz, and grease-hazed kosmische, all united by his contorted playing. Like watching him play in person, listening to it seems impossible, at least once you know the processes that went into it, but even if you don't there's a twitchy human energy to this sort of mutant electronic music, something you don't always get out of laptop composers. On the record, he's joined by friends like guitarist Michael Beharie, saxophonist Maria Kim Grand, Curtis Santiago, and Justin Frye, which he judges as crucial to the process. Their freaked contributions only make it feel more singular. Just another bit of impossible sleight of hand.
Fox recently invited me into his home to chat about the record and show how his setup works. You can catch that demonstration in a video and an edited and condensed version of the interview below.
Noisey: How did this record first come together? Was the beginning of the idea was just like having your mind blown by this technology?
Greg Fox: Yeah, absolutely. Having my mind completely blown by it and it being the answer to this question that I have been asking for a long time which is, how do I merge my passion in making electronic music a passion with my actual like real greater passion, drumming? And it was right there. [Tlacael Esparza] brought it right into my studio, you know?
There are a lot other people who I admire very deeply who do amazing solo music on the drums. And I had always been wary of, you know, copying them or sort of doing anything similar. I also never wanted to do anything where I was playing along to a backing track or anything where the things sort of have flexibility. Sensory Percussion answered the question. It was here. You can use your drums to control anything that's MIDI controllable. And, you know, the software itself, the Sensory Percussion itself is extremely powerful. The way that you can manipulate sounds with it is like really… it's like being in a room that's just there is no walls, you know. The Gradual Progression is the first place I arrived at where I felt this new way forward was ready to be shared.
What sort of state of mind are you in while you're playing? It looks immensely complicated, but that doesn't seem to be what it feels like for you.
I felt like I was discovering something, a sort of internal pattern, but expressing it in different ways. This is thematically as it turns out an extension of the work did on Mitral Transmission, but using the actual physical gesture of playing drums. The work started to take on an architectural quality and an environmental quality, where I was ultimately building a virtual object that I was using to navigate virtual environments that I was making, sort of in the way that you carve a block of wood until it is a sculpture. That's what it felt like.
You had some help on this record, how did you know you wanted other hands in on what's ostensibly a "solo record"?
I knew the music I was making was environmental, and I could hear ways in which having those other explorers in there could help find aspects of the territory that I might not have found even when drawing it all out to begin with. Those people are some of my favorite musicians, so really also I just like hanging out with them and hearing them play. I think their contributions make the record what it is, honestly.
Do you see the record as a marker of the time you've spent with the technology?
It is a document of the beginning of this thing for me. I mean, it's more like the end of the beginning in other ways because I'm like 10 years into this now, "this" being playing music in a professional capacity. And being a musician has been my life as an adult.
Take me back to the actual beginning then—if this is the closing of a chapter where did it start?
When I was like four and my mom and I lived in this little apartment on the Upper West Side, she would put out pots and pens on the floor and I would bang on them with like wood and spoons and stuff. So maybe that's the beginning.
When did you seriously get into drums then?
I was in bands throughout high school, you know, doing covers at birthday parties and stuff. I was in a band that once played like a kids Halloween party. It was like my first paid gig and we did the Austin Powers theme song and stuff like that. Some of the folks I was playing with were like getting into metal at the time and I got into it in that way.
But to answer the first question, I think it became serious for me when I was around 17 or 18, really. I was just living in Bushwick after getting out of high school and I had a job at a music shop called Manny's on a block that used to be referred to as Music Row. There were a lot of music shops there. There were some people who work there who were really great drummers and one of them in particular, a guy named Guy Licata, who's a really close friend and a bit of a mentor still would give you pointers and show me stuff. And I started practicing things he was showing me and that's when everything really changed. That's when it got real.
So that's when it clicked that you'd be focusing on drums?
I don't know if that click ever really happened, to be honest, because I've always done a lot of other stuff. When I was there and really getting serious with the things I was learning on the drums, I was also—because of this fact that I work at this music shop—I was also starting to play around samplers and drum machines. I'd go and mess around with the machines we had on display and I eventually bought an Electribe. I've been started using that to make music and that's kind of how the GDFX project started.
But also [Guy Licata] was part of a group of people who was pioneering a path with the instrument, which was really focused around playing jungle and drum and bass on the drum set. That really excited me. The tools I was learning and the skills I was learning and the exercises I was doing were really geared towards developing those kinds of chops. As I very preliminary started to get some of that stuff into my tool belt, it became exciting because I saw myself get better in like much more noticeable way than I ever had before taking lessons here or there with some teacher when I was a kid or, you know, being in my room and like listening to like a Beastie Boys track and being like, "Alright, how would I play that?'
Playing jungle and drum and bass sounds like such like a Herculean task to give yourself as someone who's learning. Where do you even start?
Well, I started by watching these guys play. Through Guy, I discovered Jojo Mayer. And so, watching him play and going to see him play in New York, going to see Guy play in New York, listening to that kind of music [was the start]. Before that, I kind of knew about it, but I didn't really have an exposure to it. So I was going to weekly and monthly [parties that played jungle and drum and bass] and checking out DJs and like listening to a lot of this music. And so, first of all, it was like understanding the language of it and then starting to understand how folks were translating that into the human body. People around me were doing things like transcribing Squarepusher songs onto the drum set.
That almost doesn't sound possible.
Right. But that's the thing, when you watch people actually do it, it's clear that what it takes is just work. I mean, I'm dexterous naturally and I'm also athletic naturally. So, it didn't come easily but it all felt like stuff I could work on and achieve, you know, if I put my mind and the time into it. And when you have hours a day sitting at a counter waiting for a customers at a drum shop and you have a practice pad in front of you, you actually spend time on the practice pad which is what every drum teacher will say is the most important thing.
When you actually start putting your energy into that pad, it does start giving you a noticeable return. So that's the thing. I think for me it was a combination of things where like I was actually just like practicing and doing exercises and then at the same time, being exposed to all this technique and all these sounds and sort of rhythms I'd never really even thought would be worth attempting.
Its really interesting how that connects to your relationship with this new technology—you're again existing at the man-machine divide.
I'm kind of a geek. I like gadgets and I've always been really curious about computers and all those kinds of stuff. So, in some ways for me, it's just tickling the same like funny bone that I've had since I was a little kid. It's this part of me that, you know, loved and still loves video games. It's the part of me that is completely fascinated by all the crazy potential of the internet. The part of me that still wants to mess around with like every pedal I see.
Are you interested at all in transhumanism at all? This technology and the record seems to have interesting things to say about the way we can extend beyond our inborn human capabilities.
Sign me up. I think it's immensely interesting and funny these days when people are trying to exchange contact information after meeting, and they pull out their phone and stare at it and try to figure out how to put this information into the phone. I think it's hilarious. It always happens. I have never seen anyone deftly add a contact to their phone. I think the smart phone and the computer are weird intermediate interfaces and they are awkward. I hate looking at my phone and staring at the screen, but I love the information I get access to, the ability to connect, that comes with it.
I think unless we just blow our asses off the face of the Earth or poison or starve ourselves, we will end up transcending those mediums and get to something way more seamless, perhaps AR or something like that, where it is less of an intrusion. I don't know if that's transhumanism or what, but I will tell you this, I am stick of staring at my phone and computer and having to answer and sort 150 emails a day. But there is nothing I love more than being in touch with people all over the world in an instant, and having access to all human knowledge in a moment's notice.
Colin Joyce likes it when people are really good at music. He is on Twitter.