[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of collaborations The Typescript is doing with Montréal-based Gravyzine2, which is published by our very talented Samia Aladas, who also, it turns out, has incredibly good taste in music.]
Bob D’Amico is the ultra-talented drummer of one of my favorite bands – Sebadoh. I called Bob up on the phone as he was chilling out on what I imagine to have been a balmy warm evening in southern Florida, in his backyard garden, with the sway of palm trees flitting in the air, and a glass of red wine in his hand (actually, he said it was cold and rainy, but hey, these visuals are pretty nice, no?) Bob casually spoke with me for a good 45 minutes, the topic flow and conversation felt easy and natural, like a cool summer breeze. Bob is probably one of the most laid back and down to earth people I ever had the pleasure to talk to. And he commented on the large number of French Canadian “snowbirds” down in Florida, to which he funnily said, because of all the native knuckleheads, the more Canadians the better. Bob enlightened me on the history behind his drumming style, his skill of writing with Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein, and we got into reasons why Act Surprised, Sebadoh’s latest album, is so darn spectacular. We also delved into some of his own past side projects, the song Leap Year, his favorite radio station, and his lifestyle of swimming in the ocean…every…single…day… Well, maybe, just maybe, I’ll grow my own snowbird wings one day…
When and how or why did you start playing drums? Who or what are your influences?
I started playing, the usual trajectory, in a grade school band/orchestra. Started on a drum set a few years after that. I was self-taught basically, and I started playing in bands when I was really young with kids I grew up with, one played guitar, another played trumpet. We started jamming when I was a kid, so I was always playing in bands. My influences – early on I was into classic rock, I loved John Bonham, and one of my favorite drummers is Bill Buford, King Crimson’s drummer and he was in Yes also, I’m a huge fan of his, so from there I listened to prog rock music and those guys talked a lot about jazz, so I started listening to jazz and got into all the great jazz drummers, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, Roy Haynes and all those cats, and in high school I got into punk and a whole mess of those drummers I totally adored and idolized like George Hurley, was one of my favorites, so a pretty big mix. I grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, so I was always around Latin music, so a lot of those drummers and percussionists were a huge influence on me. It’s a weird hodgepodge.
You have such a natural effortless flow in your drumming, can you talk about your drum style?
It’s really situational, it depends who you’re playing with, who the songwriter is, what they want out of the song, but generally speaking the first thing is to try and be as musical as possible. Your job is to keep time, keep the meter, but also to be musical, play melodically if you can, just try and bring how the songwriter wants it to flow, to serve the song mostly. And the biggest thing for me, when we play live, it’s a basic caveman thing, if I look out at the audience and if I see people’s heads moving then I’m like ok, or if they’re not maybe I’m not playing well so I need to simplify a little bit here…make sure the audience is really feeling what the song is trying to do. But that’s the point, it’s an experience, it’s you and the audience and you’re doing this together. You feed off each other.
What kind of mental zone are you in when you are playing live?
It depends, with Sebadoh, Jason and Lou are such completely different style songwriters. With Lou I’d say it’s a little bit simpler, and with Jason I’ll not overplay, but he appreciates with drumming if it fills in the gaps. He’s a drummer, that’s his main instrument so when he’s playing guitar, he’s a great guitar player, but he’s playing with the mind of a drummer. He’s filling all those gaps when he’s not singing and a lot of it is meant to be improv so in all these little gaps you can have fun, especially when you’re touring. In the songs you play every night, where there are spots in the songs where it lets up in between verses and choruses you can have a lot of fun, you explore and play off each other.
With Lou and me playing it’s more collaborative than improvisational. But you can do that when you’re playing more simply, you can just be nuanced, with little accents here and there and that’s equally as gratifying. But I think it depends on the song and what you’re trying to get across. But I do always think of the overall experience, the band, and the audience and trying new things. As I said with touring it can get a little tedious, so I’ll always try when we’re playing, even if it’s a tiny little thing, no one will notice but I do. Or I’ll think I played like shit on that song last night, so I’ll try and improve that little part. Little things that you tweak night be night makes it not boring.
How do you write your drum parts?
Yeah initially you are just getting the form of the song, like real basic, how long are the verses, where does the chorus happen, and figure out where the accents are. With Lou, it’s good to watch how he strums the guitar, that’s how he wants it to feel, so you can watch how he’s strumming, when he upstrokes and things like that, then you accent there, he usually will like that, it’ll feel good to him, so that kind of stuff, feeling it out. Getting the basic stuff down and then try and add your own spice to it. And sometimes Lou will get a look, like don’t do that, and other times he’ll be like, that’s pretty good, keep doing that, keep doing that…
You’ve been playing with Sebadoh since the Bakesale, Harmacy reissues tour in 2011, then you did the Secret EP and Defend Yourself and then with this album, Act Surprised, you’ve really found your groove with Sebadoh, would you agree?
Yeah, I think I have, there’s so many factors, as a band we’re feeling more comfortable, also touring, playing tons of shows. When I first started playing I actually had been playing with Jason for many many years. He and I don’t even have to speak, it’s sort of this unspoken thing, but I just started playing with Lou so I had to figure out how to play with him, and he had to figure out how to play with me, to make it feel right, so this playing a lot and trying to figure out how to best serve Lou’s songs was something I had to figure out. It was really fun, it was amazing, he was a hero of mine, so it was really thrilling to have the opportunity to do that…But with the new record the actual process of recording was so much different than it was with Defend Yourself, so that really lends itself in my opinion to how it came out, how it felt.
We were able to take our time, do it the old way. I went up there [to Western Massachusetts], we wrote. We took a week to write, then went back to tweak it more. With Defend Yourself it was just Lou would show me the song, I’d get it down, then we would record it. I played the song maybe once or twice then it was recorded. As opposed to Act Surprised, we sort of fleshed it out, we wrote a lot of stuff together, we demoed everything, it was sort of a long organic process. And then when we recorded it too, Jason wasn’t engineering, he was free to be one of the songwriters and musicians, didn’t have to worry about the tech side of things, I think that helped to keep everything real mellow, and productive. We had a great time with it. It was tons of fun, all positive vibes.
I think that Act Surprised has this warm thick quality to the sound. Did you come with that or did that just come together naturally?
Yeah, kind of, like with the other stuff it’s just lots of different factors. The guy who did it, where we recorded, Justin Pizzoferrato is a super talented engineer/producer but he’s also a musician, he works like a musician. During takes we’d ask, ‘how was that, Justin?’, ‘This didn’t work so well’…and he was right. It was almost like another member of the band, another musician who just happened to be working the electronics. And the room, the way the room sounded, his technical prowess with his gear, and also how we played. It seems it was a lot less of an anxious situation, so I think that comes across in how it sounded kind of warm. I think it’s all of those factors, all together.
Were you a fan of Sebadoh before you knew Jason and Lou?
Oh yeah, definitely, I can remember sitting with my friends, in a car smoking pot, listening to You’re Living All Over Me (by Dinosaur, Jr., Barlow’s other band) when that came out, I remember it vividly, it was a mind-blowing experience and then when Sebadoh came out we were all totally into it. At the time I was living in a crazy house in Brooklyn, 4 floors – all artists and musicians, everyone was just totally into Sebadoh, we were all cranking those records, and I didn’t know Jason then or anything, just ended up meeting him years later coincidentally. But yeah, I was definitely a fan for sure.
How did you meet Jason? Was that when you were in the Fiery Furnaces?
I met him before, we had this mutual friend named Kevin Mazzarelli. Jason was doing his first solo album, he needed to put a live band together to go tour, Kevin played bass and suggested I play drums. We jammed then became fast friends and had a great time. Jason put out this record called At Sixes and Sevens (in 2002), his first solo album and I was in that band.
Wow I saw you guys play when that first came out!
No, I was living in New Jersey at the time, so it was in Brooklyn.
Yeah, so the first version of the band was just me, Kevin, and Jake, and then Kevin left and we had this guy Deron Pulley for a little while, but it was mostly me, Kevin and Jake for that. So we did a good amount of touring, and then I ended up getting the gig playing with the Fiery Furnaces and they were looking for a bass player and I said why don’t you get Jason Lowenstein. They were like do you think he will play with us, and I said I think so, so he came down and jammed. I was sort of returning the favor and then he ended up getting a gig playing with the Furnaces. He played mostly bass but he played guitar too. We had a pretty long run with those guys.
How long were you playing with them?
I think we started in 2005 and it went till about 2012. It was good, it was a nice run, we were pretty busy. Did a bunch of records and stuff. And then they’re band broke up and we were kind of doing this and that and then the thing with the Bakesale/Harmacy reissue thing came up…and then I got that gig playing with Sebadoh.
I want to talk about the song you wrote, “Leap Year”. It’s such a great song!
Thanks a lot!
What’s that slide-y noise from? Is it a keyboard?
It’s just me plucking on a synthesizer – one note..It sort of low and registered, do-di-do-di-do-di, I wanted more of it, I had my own thing on and off..
You also wrote the instrumental “Once” on Defend Yourself. Both such strong additions to the album with really cool parts and sounds. These songs sound different than Lou’s songs or Jason’s songs but it’s a nice addition. Do you think you’ll do more songs like that?
I think those guys traditionally give the drummer a song, but with Sebadoh with Eric Gaffney, originally, the way I look at it, he wasn’t just a drummer, he’s a founding member. I love Eric Gaffney’s music, I’m a big fan, but I think basically I’m granted one song, and that’s great, that’s cool with me. I feel very lucky to have even one song, I’m surrounded by these two guys and I have a massive amount of admiration and respect for them, their talent and everything so if I can get a song on the record it’s pretty amazing to me.
One thing I want to say about that ‘Leap Year’ song, is that it has this middle section that sort of goes on for a really long time with nothing happening, I had a sample in there and I made that part that long because the sample was this guy who used to be the president of Mexico named Vincente Fox and he did an interview on Telemundo, this Spanish TV station, and he was talking like Trump in Spanish, and it was really great, the way he phrased his words fit perfect, sort of matched the lyrical idea – so that part is that long because it fit the length of that sample, but then the label were like we would have to pay $5000 to leave that sample from Telemundo, so we ended up having to take it out. So, whenever I hear the song, I’m like ‘aahh!’, I would have shortened that part. It would have been better with the sample, let’s put it that way, but it wasn’t worth five grand so what can you do.
Can you talk a bit about the other projects that you’ve worked on?
Circle of Buzzards was a thing I was doing with Jake, sort of in-between stuff, just a duo, sort of loud sludgy bass and drums rock stuff. If people asked us to play a show, then we would play. We weren’t trying to make a record or do anything, we played maybe a dozen shows, if that. We did do a Sebadoh tour where we opened for ourselves.
No Chief is sort of these songs I had been writing, I put together musicians to record it here and there, but I couldn’t get any momentum. The biggest problem was trying to get a permanent singer in NY. I was lucky enough to have this woman, Petra Haden (formerly of that dog.), sing for me a couple of tunes in LA, but she’s out there, so I was trying to find someone to do that stuff in NY, and I was having a lot of trouble and it was sort of disenchanting. I’ve recorded a ton of stuff I haven’t finished. I was thinking when this Sebadoh run is over I’m going to try and re-explore doing that. I’m building a studio down here, so I’m going to start that up again.
I heard No Chief on bandcamp and the song ‘Finally Found’ has got this 70s horror movie vibe, with weird synth/organ…
Yeah, the droning base line, it’s sort of the idea. The band was supposed to be a real visual thing too, I had this grandiose idea for this band, a lot of it was to be visual, the way the bass line is in that song, kind of like certain sounds will trigger certain images, so the idea of the tune is sort of half visual, half musical. I don’t have the dough to do the proper video for it but I’d like to one day. But yeah, that’s pretty perceptive, I think.
And the other song, ‘Ride,’ it’s sort of this progressive indie lounge music slightly off kilter…
Yeah, especially with Petra Haden singing, she’s a jazz singer, I was so lucky she did that, she did it for me for free, just came down and did it during the day, it’s pretty amazing. I was trying to get a singer to do that stuff in NY but no one could even come close to her, I always had her, the way she pulled that stuff off, in the back of my head. She’s so talented and amazing, I’m a huge fan. I consider myself unbelievably lucky that she was able to sing on those songs.
What about Saqqara Mastabas?
Yeah that’s me and Matt from the Furnaces. We started that at the time, he was living in Paris, I was living in Brooklyn. I recorded a ton of these free form drum pieces, no form, no bar lines, just free drumming, and I sent it to him and said just play on it just for fun, we sent the tracks back to each other, it was great, and he was like would you do that for me, and we did it over and over again. We ended up with like 20 pieces of music that we did remotely, transatlantic-ly, so we thought we should put this out and we coaxed Joyful Noise into putting it out. We played a handful of shows. It was fun to do that for sure. We were never in the same room at the same time when we recorded it.
What about Set On Stun?
That’s on old band of mine a long time ago, in the 90s. We recorded with J Robbins, played a ton of shows. I’m still good friends with all those guys. That was sort of my thing, me and this other guy, the bass player, we wrote all the tunes.
So, you’re in Florida, Lou’s in Massachusetts and Jason’s in Brooklyn – so are you guys going to work on another album…are you on a break now, or are you going on another tour?
Yeah, not really on a break, we have three tours coming up, in January we’re going to Asia for three weeks, then we’re going to Europe in March, and then we’re doing another US tour, maybe some Canada dates in April and May. I’m not sure if we are going to Montréal, maybe we are. So, we’re going to do that, maybe some other stuff, but Lou is starting up with Dinosaur, they’re recording right now. That’s the issue, we lose Lou for a bit, we sort of have to work around the Dinosaur schedule. But apparently, we are going to try and do another record, I think, and it’s a good excuse to get back out and tour.
How did your tour for Act Surprised go? Any particular highlights from the tour? Do you enjoy it?
Yeah, it’s mostly a day in day out grind but I think we have fun, and I personally love going to Europe and stuff because of the stuff you get to see and experience. We had a day off on my birthday in Europe, and the tour manager took us to Chartres, the big gothic cathedral outside of Paris. The stuff you get to do in Europe is really fun, an experience you won’t ever forget for the rest of your life, as opposed to outside of Cleveland on a day off. I love it, when I’m home for a bit I start to get a little antsy.
What do you do in your spare time, when you’re not touring?
I work and make money, I have a painting business, painting people’s houses. I’ve done the same thing, for like 25 years, in between going on tour, come home, get into that again. Try to make money, pay the bills. Briefly for a while when I played with the Furnaces and first started with Sebadoh I thought maybe I won’t have to paint anymore, when one cycle ends the other begins. Just like with Lou, he can go from one to the other and doesn’t need to get a regular job. Of course, I was playing with the Furnaces, I got the Sebadoh gig, and then the Furnaces break up, ah shit, back to the grind. I was lucky for about 6 months, it all came together. It’s ok, it’s fine, I don’t mind it.
So what’s there to do in Florida?
Well I go swimming every day!
Yeah, I live really close to the beach. Let me put it this way, since I moved from NY about a year and half ago, I haven’t gotten sick once. I think it’s because I’m swimming in the ocean, the salt water’s going up your nose, it’s sort of cleaning everything out. I just hang out in my backyard and garden a lot, but most I go swimming as much as possible. I love the heat, I don’t mind when it’s blazing hot and humid. It’s like when you play at shows, you start to hallucinate a bit, I like it, it makes me feel alive. I always hated Florida, I always hated it, but then I found this neighborhood where I live now, it’s all these old houses from the 30s and 40s, beach cottages, and it’s pretty liberal, it’s kind of like a weird little green zone within Florida. It’s near the beach. It’s a cool little spot surrounded by a lot of crap.
Are there any places to go out and see music?
I don’t really go out, I’m mostly gone a lot since I’ve moved here. But I’ve gone to a rock venue in a little downtown venue where I live, where cute little bands play. I like that place, seeing kids starting to do it, it’s gratifying to see.
Do you miss NY?
Yeah, I grew up there, so there’s certain things that are just part of a normal life, that here I just go ‘what the hell is wrong with these people?’ that sort of normal day in NY common sense stuff, so I miss that. And I like to cook so finding certain cooking ingredients that are real hard to find down here. So, I miss it of course, but like an old man, the weather is a huge factor in my happiness I have to say.
So why did you decide Florida, do you have roots down there, do you know people?
I’ve got family down here. One by one they all ended up down here. I just wanted to find a place where the cost of living is less, the weather is good and it’s not too far away, so I ended up here.
What are you listening to at the moment? Any favorite new bands?
Yeah, I listen to and hear new music a lot because I listen to, all day and every day, this one particular station called WREK, it’s college radio at Georgia Tech, it’s the best. Every time I listen to it, it’s usually stuff I never heard before. I heard this great band today, they’re called Plax. I hear great stuff all the time, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s no frills. Being from NY I used to listen to WFMU all the time, of course, it’s an institution, but all the DJs doing their shtick and everything it got old to me after a while. But WREK, they never talk, they’ll come on once in a while and are like that’s so and so, then right back to it. It’s one great new fantastic band after another. So, I’m just constantly Shazaming it, ‘what was that? what was that!?’ I’m always in my backyard, I have one huge speaker so I’m usually just streaming it – it’s free. It’s fantastic, you should check it out. It’s great, it’s gives me a lot of hope for the future, let me put it that way.
Being down in Florida, if you want to start writing again – how will you do that?
Well I’m building a studio, I have like a detached garage, so with recording, I’ll just bring people down here, do more No Chief stuff eventually. I also want to start a local band down here, play in a bar band, a Zeppelin cover band or something. There are tons of sort of little bars around here with little bands playing, get a hot little classic rock band together. But the priority is getting this studio together so I can start making some music…bang away on the drums.♥