Phil Selway and the evolution of rock drumming in the digital age
What happens when a rock drummer is forced to play with drum machines, sequencers and programmings? Does he sense an invasion of his space? Does he feel threatened? Does he grow disaffection for his band? I asked Phil Selway of Radiohead, the band that almost fifteen years ago rewrote rock rules using new and old tools avaiable in a recording studio, electronics included. I remember a Time article about the all-time 100 albums. It said that recording Kid A «Radiohead went further down the experimental rabbit hole, embracing samplers, sequencers and, to the eternal dismay of drummer Phil Selway, a drum machine». Today Selway doesn’t seem dismayed at all. «Thanks to hip-hop and dance influence on rock music, drummers have benefitted immensely from drum machine and electronic percussions» he says. «Playing along sequencers with Radiohead pushed me to create some new dynamics. It’s another way of solving the problem of arranging songs. Electronics are part of the dialogue now. It’s a challenge and it’s healthy. It has a direct impact on how I drummed over the years».
It took some time to get such a result. The first drum machines were rudimentary at the least. Since the 30s they were designed to expand the rhythmic possibilities of composers and to provide musicians a rhythmic track. The first drum machine was a huge box called Rhythmicon; it was commissioned to Léon Theremin by the American composer Charles E. Ives for the benefit of his colleagues Henry Cowell and Nicolas Slonimsky. It produced sixteen different rhythms based on the principle of the overtones, ie the concomitant sounds that accompany each main sound. It was the first in a series of experiments which culminated in 1959 in the first commercially produced drum machine put on the market by Wurlitzer. It was called Sideman and was designed to accompany organists with twelve preset rhythms, which could be played at various speeds. The boom came in the 60s with the transition from electro-mechanical to the transistor technology. At the end of the decade and at the beginning of the 70s it wasn’t unusual to hear recordings produced with drum machines, even in pop music.
The 80s were great time for programmed rhythms thanks to the spread of sampled sounds. It was a huge step forward compared to the original drum machines that produced electrical signals mimicking the sounds of a drum set. The expensive Linn LM-1 was launched in 1979, Roland TR-808 in 1980, Oberheim DMX in 1981, LunnDrum in 1982: they changed the scenario and gave Prince a distinctive sound. Sometimes these tools were used in a subtle way, such as the DMX in Police’s Every Breath You Take, the 808 in Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing and Linn in Genesis’ Mama. Sometimes they became a trademark, especially for new wave bands, and a hated fetish for those who despised electronics, typically within the rock field, because it wasn’t “authentic”. Yet even rock musicians have transformed programming into an aesthetics. Think about the Suicide, whose primitive sound exerted influence unthinkable when the duo recorded, an influence that reaches to Bruce Springsteen. Even more traditional musician as J.J. Cale used a drum machine in the early 70s for lack of a real drummer. Yet that thin, conventional and mechanical sound, anything but attractive or sophisticated, was ok within the frame of Cale’s homemade musical world.
Phil Selway and Radiohead live in a different soundworld. The electronics no longer mimic a steady rock beat, but create variations and subtleties that enrich it. Now electronic beats are programmed to take into account important musical concepts such as dynamics and swing. The wide variety of sampled sounds and the chance to control them with a sequencer have improved the aesthetics of electronic rhythms, making them attractive to those who once considered them as unnatural. The very act of dealing with digital manipulation and electronics has led some drummers to rethink their work, a change that seemed impossible thirty years ago, when drum machines looked like monsters that would put them out of work. «In the last Radiohead tour,» says Phil Selway, «I was joined by a second drummer, Clive Deamer. That was fascinating. One played in the traditional way, the other almost mimicked a drum machine. It was push-and-pull, like kids at play, really interesting. You wouldn’t go there without the initial inspiration of a drum pattern. That approach was very much informed by drum machines.» Reverse is true as well. In the hip-hop field, where rhythms are mostly programmed, The Roots’ drummer Questlove has set a standard for the integration of acoustic and electronic kits. Hear You Got Me and you’ll be hard guessing the nature of the rhythm: is it “human” or digital? Not surprisingly, Questlove grew up in a musical hybrid culture: the family was involved in the oldies R&B circuit, which gave him a taste for live music, but his biggest influence is not some incredibile session man, but a drum programmer called Jaydee.
Electronics aren’t used anymore to replace the steady beat of a drum. They’re instruments with their own logic and their own aesthetics. Musicians such as Phil Selway or Glenn Kotche (Wilco) have noticed and have enriched their style of unexpected turns, coming to sample their own drumming and “play themselves” live. Just listen to the evolution of the style of Radiohead’s drummer from the debut album Pablo Honey (1993) to The King of Limbs (2011) or Live from the Basement where the same songs are performed live: it’s more dynamic and diverse. It’s not just a matter of unusual metrics, which have made their way into Radiohead catalogue. Selway is reacting to the context, he’s channeling electronic programming into his drumming style that is naturally prone to jazz and its freedom. That’s why, as he says today, «electronics opened up my drumming rather than closing down the possibilities of what I can do. Now I can express myself in a more effective way.» And way more imaginative.