Mixtape: Neal Morgan by Gary Canino

BOMBlog talks to singing drummer Neal Morgan, who’s played with the likes of Bill Callahan and Joanna Newsom, about his remarkable new solo album IN THE YARD.

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

​Neal Morgan

Neal Morgan in his garage in Portland

When I found out that Neal Morgan, best known as the drummer (both live and on record) forBill Callahan and Joanna Newsom, was opening for Bill Callahan, I was in disbelief.

“What an ego on this guy!” I said to my friends. “The drummer gets to open SOLO for the real deal? Who does this guy know?” I expected a Tommy Lee-routine, complete with a drum solo mid-air. Or maybe it would be something like Fred Armisen doing his Jans Hanneman routine.

But, to my legitimate surprise, Morgan’s incredible opening set was just singing and drums (and about 30% of it was a cappella). Now, he is following up his astounding work on 2010’sHave One On Me and last year’s Apocalypse with his second solo record, IN THE YARD, out January 24th on Drag City. Last month I caught up with him fresh off a European tour with Callahan to discuss his drumming technique, dealing with noisy crowds, and his other plans for 2012.

Gary Canino I understand you just returned from Europe?

Neal Morgan Yes, it went great. Playing those songs is such a special honor and so fun for me. And I was able to open a few of the nights, which was great.

GC The first time I saw you perform was opening for Bill Callahan, in Greensboro, NC. That seemed to be a rough show for you, people were talking, there was a security alarm that kept beeping during your a cappella parts that seemed to be messing with your singing. Are audiences in Europe more polite?

NM I’ll say first that I don’t necessarily find people talking over an opening set to be impolite. Well, maybe I do. I guess it all depends. It seemed like people were there to have fun, they were drinking and catching up and that was an incredibly loud room, so I wasn’t at all upset or thrown off by the talking. There were moments when I did a few things up there that corralled the talkers, and that can be interesting during a set that is a lot of improvisation. But you asked about European audiences—I guess I would say that I’ve had more talking over my sets in the states than in Europe, but I don’t know, the sample size is fairly small.

GC I also forgot to mention that the show was free! So who knows how many people even came to see Bill Callahan.

NM Aha! I was just talking with Bill and Matt [Kinsey], who plays guitar in Bill’s band, about this. I jokingly stated that if people are talking at a show, the ticket price wasn’t high enough. I remember in 2006 there was a quasi-secret Joanna [Newsom] show in Louisville that was like five dollars, but it was held in this enormous bar/barn situation that was SO LOUD, and people were just there to drink beer and talk. And oh, right, here’s the thing—it was Thanksgiving—so everyone had come home from college and just wanted to talk. So after Joanna gave it a really superhuman effort, she had to play much fewer songs than she wanted simply because the small PA couldn’t put the music over this enormous roar of talking.

GC A lot of things you do onstage are intensely subtle (which could easily get lost in a loud show such as you mentioned). When I saw you with Joanna in Charlottesville last year, I recall you knocking a cymbal with your fist, something the mic probably didn’t pick up. Luckily I was close, so I caught that. Do you do touches like that for the other musicians on stage or for those closer to the stage?

NM I guess one benefit of traveling with your own front of house engineer is that you develop a working arrangement over time—Joanna’s FOH person, Shelly Steffens, is amazing, and I bet she had seen me do that enough over time that she knew to turn the mic up in that moment. Sometimes we will go over these things, but I trust her to mix the sounds as she sees fit. So that’s part of it. The other part is that I don’t quite care all the time that something I’m doing will be audible for everyone. I want to make a certain sound or play something a certain way that matches how I’m hearing the band, how I’m hearing the drums, etc. and indicates something about the moment in the music, and sometimes it’s irrespective of volume or projection. On this Bill tour, we played “Our Anniversary” every night, and I play a tee-shirt on the floor tom with brushes and kick the kick drum very softly. I want the drums on that song to be almost inaudible and there were times when the FOH person—who was new every night, supplied by the clubs—would crank up the floor tom mic and I’d move the drum away from the mic. Cat and mouse. And yes, in those instances you have some kind of connection with the people in earshot, the people close enough to hear, and that’s fun. I’m always right at the front of the stage, so I guess those moments are made possible because of that proximity to the audience.

GC When I interviewed Bill Callahan this past summer, he said that you “don’t play unless it’s absolutely necessary,” and that he tries to apply the same idea to his guitar playing. I’ve seen you mention Zach Hill as an influence in a previous interview, but his style seems to differ from yours. How did you develop this sparse style of playing? I’ve never seen anything like it before with other drummers.

NM Did Bill say that I don’t play unless it’s necessary, or just one doesn’t play?

GC You specifically.

NM OK, got it. Well I can’t say how I developed the way I did exactly but a couple things. First, I learned a lot about who I am as a drummer and as an arranger writing drum and percussion for the touring of Joanna’s Ys record. I camped out in this house, I was house-sitting for a month or so, and did nothing but listen to that album and play along to it and finally, by the time we began touring in October 2006, had arrangements that worked with her songs and with Van Dyke [Parks]’s arrangements. You’ve seen those songs live, and you might remember the arrangements I wrote. There are multiple minutes that go by when I don’t play at all—it’s just not necessary in those moments. And when I’m in with a punctuation at minute 7:30 after having been out since minute 2:40, that perhaps provides for a richer moment. A stronger turn. A more effective moment for the song. I punctuate moments that benefit from punctuation, and support movement when support is needed, and call attention to melody and to lyrics when attention-directing is appropriate/needed. Those songs—Joanna’s songs, Bill’s songs—don’t need anything beyond what they are doing, but if I can help here and there to bring the songs to life in a way that suits the songs and meets their ideas of how they hope the song comes to life, then I’ve done well in my role as a supporter. So, there’s that. Working on Joanna’s Ys for live performance was more educational for me than any drumming influences or anything like that. Second, I didn’t have more than several lessons when I was learning to play and didn’t ever practice rudiments and things like that, which is unfortunate in a way because I’m limited in my playing technically—you want to express something in the moment and you can’t because of lack of skill—but I was never interested, perhaps because of this, in playing fast or doing a lot of technically cool stuff. Zach is an artistic influence, absolutely, but not necessarily a drumming influence—I could never ever come close to doing anything he does on that drum kit. Holy cow.

GC That was a pretty BIG question I am now realizing.

NM Yes, and actually, I’ve been writing about this for five or six years—about supporting—about all of this stuff related to being a supporting drummer, and hope to eventually turn it into a book. Ha! Super inside-baseball drumming book that ten people will read. That question just opens up what to me is so fascinating about what I’m lucky enough to do as a support musician. Thanks for asking it.

GC Neal Morgan’s Guide to Drumming and Life. Could be the 21st century answer to Dale Carnegie.

NM I like it. I’ll credit you if that’s the title.

GC How was IN THE YARD recorded? I read that much of your first record was recorded using just your laptop’s internal mic on Garageband?

NM The first one was recorded that way, yes, but also with a lot of cassette 8 track recordings as well. IN THE YARD was recorded in my garage in Portland. I used proper microphones for the vocals and did those digitally using Logic and also did some drums with proper mics and again used the internal mic in the laptop. I thought I had finished the album in May with a total of ten songs, all digital, but it just didn’t feel right when I got back home. There were a couple big technical mistakes in the mastering and final mix, which were my fault, so the sound itself was horrible digital sounding, but it ended up just not feeling finished. I had been reading two pieces I had written on Bill’s summer US tour during my opening sets, and I really enjoyed speaking live, and it turned out that when I got back home and got into the garage again, the record needed those spoken pieces. So I recorded them through an old cassette boombox very quickly, put them on the record, and it was clear at that point it was a finished piece of work. Hallelujah.

GC On this record, and your last solo record, your playing is, to these ears, very different from your drumming with Joanna and Bill. And of course it is, they’re your songs, and you’re not supporting anyone. How conscious are you of space when it’s just yourself? And a sub-question, when performing, how different is the experience for you when it’s just you up there?

NM I’m becoming more conscious of space in my work as I go further. This record is probably the end of an exploration of the kind of density in composition and arrangement that I began on the first. I feel like I’ve kind of seen through a number of the guiding impulses that led me to create broad chords with a lot of different colors and arrangements for eight percussion instruments, etc. I believe that where I’m headed is more in the direction of the first side of the new record than the second side, which feels like more of an extension of the first album. When I’m performing by myself, it is of course an entirely different experience than playing with others on stage—one thing I like is that I can completely improvise. I just played in Dresden and began singing something a capella from center stage and decided halfway through to finish the song at the drum kit. Things like that are fun for me and important for how I want this music to come to life live.

GC I guess improvisation can be difficult with set songs, but it’s easy for you to do up there because it’s just you performing. That said, could you ever see yourself expanding your own live show with more people? Also, are some songs difficult to perform live because of looping / multi-tracking?

NM My friend Damaris Peterson sang with me on a number of tours for the first album, and there were some great moments playing with her. Some friends in Portland have offered to support me live—a few great singers and a couple drummers—and I’m really considering exploring the possibility of performing live what is on the record. It could be done. But to do it right would be a lot of time and so much work for everyone; I kind of don’t want to put them through that. What I’m more interested in is improvising in collaboration—I might have a punk drummer play with me this month—I’ll just be singing and speaking. I’m interested in that.

GC Who are the “rich assholes from LA” from “I Stand on a Roof?”

NM Who do you think they are? That’s rhetorical, but I think listeners will be able to get a sense for who they are or at least what they represent to the character.

GC You mentioned listening to spoken word earlier, what have you been listening to lately?

NM Rain on Lens, the great Bill record from 2001 has been on my mind. The Kurt Vile record I like a lot—it’s one of the only new albums not made by a friend that I’ve given much attention to in recent years—I am intrigued and amused by the character singing those songs so I keep going back to it. I just listened to Kate Bush’s new record on NPR and really liked it. There is a song by Ed Askew called “Blue Eyed Baby“ that is unbelievably good, and I’m obsessed with it.

GC Do you have any other big plans in 2012? Any other songwriters you’re playing with? I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but you’d be a great fit for Cass McCombs.

NM You know, I’ve not heard that, but I have heard really great things. I’ve been meaning to pick up a record. Thanks for reminding me. In 2012, I’m going to be making the third drum and voice record—I think side A of IN THE YARD foreshadows what the next album will be. It will be much more spoken word over improv drum performances. More spare. But it could go any number of ways. We’ll see.

Neal Morgan’s BOMBlog Mixtape:

Bill Callahan, “Riding For The Feeling”

Perhaps my favorite music video ever.

Ed Askew, “Blue Eyed Baby”

This song is so beautiful. It’s always somewhere in my mind. When I have seen Ed perform live, he has added a verse that makes this song even more fascinating.

Hella, Live

I wish I had been at this show.

Sean Pecknold’s video for Fleet Foxes ,“The Shrine/An Argument”

Touchdown, Pecknold!

Joanna Newsom, “Sawdust and Diamonds”

What a song, what a song.

Tonality Star, “Who Are You?”

My favorite new artist in Portland.

Home Shopping Blooper

LOOK AT THAT HORSE! One of my best friends clued me into this video recently, bless him.

Why I Must Be Careful, Live

One of my favorite bands in Portland.

Robin Pecknold, Live

Robin Pecknold performing live, opening for Joanna Newsom—what a fun tour that was.

Check out Neal Morgan’s Facebook page for more on IN THE YARD.

Gary Canino lives in New York City, where he spends his nights drumming for the slow-motion rock ‘n’ roll ensemble Sleeping Bag.

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