A good few months ago I was fortunate enough to take some of Evan McGregor’s time. Evan is a drummer that’s been here and there, including in Hashshashin. He also is someone that through happenstance I’ve photographed more than other musicians.
We sat down to talk mostly about his drumming and lightly touched on Hashshashin, including their currently upcoming EP, Śaraṇaṃ, the release of which is being crowdfunded through here.
Ez: Early to mid.
Evan: Early to mid?
Ez: Early to mid.
So you’ve been drumming for a while now.
Evan: It was in high school. I started hanging out with these guys that lived near me. They were the cool kids of the neighbourhood and they were a bassist and guitar player. I started hanging out with them and in about year seven they were like “We need a drummer. Do you wanna do it?” And I said “Yeah I’ll do it”. *laughs*
For maybe a year or two I was the drummer in their band without ever touching the drums, so it was great!
I remember hanging out with those guys and another couple of friends one night. I was doing some air drumming and someone was like “Are you a drummer?” I went “Yeah, I play in their band” and then someone else went “Oh bullshit. You don’t play drums.” I remember after that thinking “Yeah I better actually go learn drums.” *laughs*
It’s funny that it didn’t occur to me until someone said it, that you can’t be a drummer unless you actually play drums, so that was kind of it.
There’s lots of people that I meet that are like “Oh you know, my parents are musicians”. For me that was not the case at all.
Ez: Alright. Let me ask these other questions I’ve got for you (I’d pulled out a series of cards with questions). Are you ready?
Evan: Yeah yeah.
Ez: Alright. How do what can but not always so?
Evan: One more time?
Ez: How do what can but not always so?
Evan: How do what… is this a freakin’ riddle?
Ez: No. It’s a question.
Evan: How do what can, but not always so. I don’t know.
Ez: Shall I go to the next question?
Evan: Oh hang on. Yeah I got it. One more time.
Ez: How do what can but not always so?
Evan: Within behind. Without… indeed?
Ez: Okay. Alright. How do what can but not always? How do what? How always? How? How? This one’s just a face.
Evan: *laughs* That’s awesome.
Uhh do you ever feel that there’s a struggle with the dichotomy between expressions of musicality and the pursuit of technical proficiency?
Evan: That was a good quest-
Ez: Oh. How do what can but not always so?
Evan: *laughs* I didn’t realise you were going to be doing some sort of like meta, absurd type of interview.
Ez: I mean, that’s what it says.
Evan: How do what can but not always so? I think I already answered that question.
Ez: Oh. Sorry.
Evan: …Always so.
Ez: I don’t know what’s going on. Let’s get rid of these.
Evan: I think they’re good. If they were in Times New Roman font…
Ez: I can’t write in Times New Roman. Let’s just ask some better questions then.
Evan: Don’t be hard on yourself. They were brilliant questions.
Ez: So you’ve been playing for a while now.
Evan: Yeah, but I will add that there have been big gaps in between.
Ez: It counts.
And you studied at The Conservatorium?
Evan: I did a very short course at The Conservatorium quite a long time ago. It was a jazz thing, maybe a term. There was a period in my life where I was like “I better learn some jazz”.
Evan: I know that sounds hilarious, right? But as a drummer, it is one of those things where it gets to a point where you can play all this complex stuff but if you don’t have some jazz you feel you should learn some. I quickly realised it didn’t interest me that much. Whenever I went to play jazz I didn’t think I could go deep enough into that to really get into what it is about. The crux and flow of it.
Music is not about this abstracted separate thing. For me it has to be about feeling it and getting into the flow.
So jazz is quite a particular thing but relate relate to other types of music more than jazz. I get that a lot of people get into the world of jazz because it can open up into this amazing improvisational thing. And I’m inspired by people like Tony Buck from The Necks. He’s a jazz player but he does this whole other thing with it.
I guess at some point in my life I wanted to go into that world, but realised after trying jazz for a little while, I didn’t think I could get into that world to make it worthwhile for myself. At some point I was like “Ah, nah. I’ll stick to what I’m already kind of pretty okay at”.
Ez: At the time were you more of a straight ahead, bang the shit out of them drummer?
Evan: I mean, everybody starts there I guess. I think at that stage – and since starting drums – I’ve been interested in kind of technical stuff, like odd times and things that are not just rock. That has been something that has always just kind of bored me.
At the point when I started studying jazz I was into everything except jazz. I think that’s why I did it; I felt like there was a hole I needed to fill, like I didn’t get jazz.
I love listening to some jazz but I’m very particular about it as well.
Ez: So you started getting into more experimental stuff early on then.
Evan: Yeah. I mean I consider myself really lucky to be exposed to heaps of awesome music just by chance from meeting the bassist and guitar player, because they both had older brothers and that was the goldmine at the time.
A friend still reminds me that when he first showed me I thought it was a big joke. I just laughed and was like “What is this? This is just a silly thing” but then the more we listened to it I was just like “This is actually amazing”. So from there I got obsessed with Mr. Bungle. I was coming out of the grunge and getting into punk and metal, and slowly it got heavier and heavier.
From there I branched in multiple directions, so even before I got really into properly drumming technically, I would say I was into quite experimental stuff, if you could call it experimental.
Ez: A lot of that would’ve seemed more experimental at the time whereas these days it would seem more foundational. Bungle aside.
Evan: Yeah. Totally. And I never went super avant-garde. There’s some stuff I got into, but for me what’s really important is that I like things that are unpredictable. I don’t really get off on super noise craziness; I tend to like things that still have some sort of groove and interesting melodies, but I don’t like extreme dissonance just for the sake of it.
I like consonance, but I also don’t like consonance that goes on for too long; I like contrast. It’s funny as well; the older I get, I like less changes. *laughs* Even Mr. Bungle now it’s like “Oh, I do very much like California.”
Evan: California is the best album to me now because they can play a section. It also seems more mature to me with the songwriting rather than just “Let’s be crazy!” I think that’s me getting old.
Ez: With that being said is that I’ve noticed you seem more interested in sound than just playing drums. You generally have a very snappy and quick way of playing when it’s called for, but you also go very loose and gentle. So I guess how important is percussion as a form of contributing beyond the beat to you?
Evan: I don’t think it’s necessarily important. Percussion can be anything depending on its function. It can just work perfectly as just giving a really simple pulse if that’s what’s needed. But important for me personally to be interested in it?
Ez: As a percussionist, more than just a beat, actually contributing to the song. In terms of your playing.
Evan: I don’t think I consciously think about that too much, but I’m kind of aware that I do that. I think what it comes out of – and it is really important to me as a player – is to not overthink what I’m doing. I’m sure a lot of musicians are like this as well; you don’t sit down and listen to a piece of music and go “What I want to do with this is this and this and this” and orchestrate it. You can get amazing music out of that, but that’s not how I work. I just play what I play and then I like to refine it, and it happens sort of subconsciously.
But it’s also true that I’m not happy if I’m just playing the beat, so I think what it is is a natural byproduct of what I’ve listened to and enjoyed. I love dynamics. They’re so important.
In Hashshashin, even in super heavy bits I’m playing the rhythm that’s behind it but I’m always looking to try to add feel to it, and…
Dynamics in two ways: The obvious, reducing the volume and playing quiet and aloud and that kind of contrast is really important to me. If I was playing with Lachlan (Dale, Hashshashin, Art As Catharsis, Worlds Within Words) for example, and we were just going bang out super heavy, then naturally at some point I’d wanna chill for a bit as well because it’s too much for me to just be like that all the time.
But if it’s really intense for a long period of time I try to think about how you get dynamics within that, like microdynamics. It might be on a snare, ghost notes. People tend to do this stuff more with lower volume grooves. In big, heavy typical metal production you don’t really get a lot of ghost notes. I think people produce them out of the music or use triggers, but some of the best, loud heavy drumming, the dynamics are still there but it’s microdynamics. Everything is super loud but there’s still dynamics within the snare and stuff like that.
But as I said, it’s not really conscious. I don’t plan to do that. I think it’s just a result of listening to stuff like Jon Theodore, The Mars Volta. De-Loused In The Comatorium blew my mind. I remember driving down this highway and it was a random CD that I bought. I had never heard it. “Oh, guys from At The Drive-In. At The Drive-In are cool.”
Evan: Yeah! And then I was just like “What is this? This is futuristic”, ’cause at the time there was nothing like that. It is on another level.
So anyway, Jon Theodore, amazing drummer, was a big influence for me, that made me realise you can play technical, interesting stuff without just playing the block rhythm. You can play with feel in there.
So I guess to try and answer your question, to me it is about keeping the feel. Doesn’t matter how technical it is. Subconsciously I guess I’m determined to make it feel like a groove as well. I’m trying to put in microgrooves within it, I suppose, and play around it a bit. I want it to feel good. It’s not pre-planned. I think that’s just what happens when I start writing.
Ez: Well, I guess that leads into this question.
Do you ever feel that there’s a struggle with the dichotomy between expressions of musicality – I can’t believe I wrote this – and the pursuit of technical proficiency?
Do you want me to hand you the question?
Evan: Yeah yeah yeah. It’s a great question.
Ez: It’s poorly worded though.
Evan: No I think it’s good. I’m just trying to get my head around it.
Ez: Are you telling me you like that more than “How do what can but not always”?
Evan: No, it’s definitely not as good as that.
For me, personally, no, not at all.
One thing I do struggle with, I do optimally want music to be “real” as an expression, right? So the expression is super important but I’m also not just satisfied with that. I want to refine it.
The way that I work to try and make something better is listen to an improvisation first and then have some vague ideas on how to improve it, and then play it more and more until it becomes better itself, if that makes sense, rather than listen to an improvisation I did and then meticulously crafting how its going to sound.
For me the struggle in making really good music – what I’m happy with – is taking something that comes from a very natural, musical expressive place and working on it but without being too meticulous and methodical about it. Working on it by playing it lots of times until expression refines itself naturally, and to me that’s then the best form it could be.
Ez: I guess in a way what you’re saying is that both need to grow concurrently in a sense. Your level of technical proficiency is fine so long as you’re able to use it to work on something and grow it playing it.
Something that interests me a lot is thinking of music as a language because it is. And so for me, the way I think about it is that you need to have a certain vocabulary, you need to have a certain amount of basic grammatical understanding to express yourself and your meaning, and expressing meaning is all that really matters.
Sure, some person over here could be incredibly articulate, have a vocabulary ten times mine and that’s great. How they use that, that’s fantastic. Do they necessarily express their meaning? Do they necessarily get across more efficiently than I might?
Same thing with music. You need to learn a certain amount of words and sentences, whether that’s beats, fills, whatever. You need to grow that language so that you can then express yourself.
Do you wanna express yourself naturally? We’re just openly talking. We’re not thinking – apart from a few of your questions – and I think that’s the most beautiful type of expression. Imagine if we met up and I had all my answers ready and you had all your questions ready. It’s stiff and stale and it’s predetermined vocabulary, just like a lot of – I think – technical music, and that’s the stuff that really, for me is not as interesting.
It might be impressive; “Wow look, you can speak and use all these amazing words, but is it coming from a real place? I don’t know, maybe not. So to me it’s about building your vocabulary enough so you can express some sort of meaning from yourself, some sort of passion.
To me I’ve never cared about… I’ve been through periods of my life where I’m like “Wow, look at this technique, gravity blast, what’s that? This is cool.” I’ll get really interested in it for like a week, try it and then be like “I don’t care about this anymore.” I get interested vaguely in little techniques and certain things but then I don’t care anymore and go back to just playing and I try to play and play and play.
Even as adults we don’t go down every night and sit and study the dictionary to come up with new words. You pick them up organically through being with people. You pick up ideas and ideas become way more important than words.
So the technicality thing has never bothered me. I think it’s happened subconsciously; I’ve gotten more technical from the music I listen to and music I play along to.
Ez: We’ll talk about Hashshashin.
How do you approach drums in that? Because Lachlan – to me – he does do improv but he seems more compositional
Evan: Lachlan with Hashshashin is definitely way more compositional but he has projects where he explores the improvisational thing.
In our history with the band, we’ve tried… we’ve got together a few times to have a jam to see what comes out and it hasn’t been great. *laughs* It’s kind of okay but I think we’ve all realised that we’re way more productive when somebody composes something first.
In a lot of other bands I’ve been in, sometimes I’ve brought a rhythm and we’ve jammed on the rhythm. The entire Helu (Varisema) album is built around one rhythm; just lots of different iterations. With Hashshashin the first album (nihsahshsaH) was pretty much all Lachlan’s ideas which is really cool. A lot of his rhythms are very unintuitive from me. Even though it comes from the same realm of weird, choppy – and we both have a love of those Balkan, Eastern European rhythms which are weird groups of 2s and 3s, but Lachlan tends to…
What I love about some of his writing; I guess he’s less rhythmically minded than me because he’s not a drummer but he comes up with really amazing rhythms because they’re unintuitive to a drummer. For me I tend to be more “A group of the 2 and a group of the 3” and just play it for ages, but a lot Lachlan’s rhythms on that first albums cut at weird points. It’s sort of a culmination of what I was already sort of doing but then his more raw sense of choppy-changey to it as well.
On that first album I just did my thing. I’m sure I added suggestions for dynamics and stuff, but essentially most of that first album Lachlan wrote and that’s why I think it sounds different to Badakhshan because Cam (bass) and I had more input into that album. Obviously Lachlan brought in the rubab too, and there are a couple of songs on that album that I did start, and there are more dynamics on that second album.
One example is “Shrines Of The Wakhan”. Most of that is built around one of my rhythms. It came out of this mathematical idea of perfectly-formed rhythms, or well-balanced rhythms. It’s a mathematical concept where you draw a circle and all the dots in the circle are all the pulses that make up a cycle. Then certain dots are highlighted to say that they are the played rhythmically within the pulse.
I’m explaining it really badly, but “Shrines Of The Wakhan” came out of my brief foray into that thing of perfectly-formed rhythms and the whole thing was built around that, and that whole album is pretty weirdly contrasted, I feel like. There’s some stuff that’s a bit more traditional with Lachlan bringing is rubab stuff and just us playing along to that. Then there’s stuff that is a bit more like the first album with more weird, jagged rhythms.
I like something that’s technical and weird but I don’t want to change it and move on. I want to get into it and develop it.
Ez: Before we started recording, you described “Bless Sequence” as full of depth and platitudes, and ennui, and the ultimate realisation that we are insignificant and nothing we do matters but it doesn’t matter so long as we do something that puts a net positive in the world.
Evan: Wait, what? Was that a question? *laughs*
I was just kind of vibing but I wasn’t sure what you were saying.
Ez: Well you see, what it is is that the meaning is not yet determined. However, if we were talking about the epistemological side of it, maybe the meaning IS determined.
But yeah, you were saying it was a whole bunch of nothing.
Evan: “Bless Sequence”.
Ez: So is the name intentionally pretentious then?
Evan: *laughs* I don’t think it was intentionally pretentious; We just knew it was pretentious. It came out of a random place and then we were like “That’s incredibly pretentious” and then we rolled with it.
“Bless Sequence” is something that…
(From here Evan went on to explain the meaning and and formation of “Bless Sequence” and I came out having a better understanding of it.)
Ez: So the upcoming EP (Śaraṇaṃ); Has your approach changed, musically on this?
Evan: I guess it has because the musical situation dictated that it needed to be different, and because I don’t actually practise as much as I’d like.
The EP is basically three songs. Two of them are rubab songs and the third one is based on this tank drum. Around six or seven years ago I got a handpan. Around the time when I got it I wasn’t as melodically-minded as I am now, so it suited me perfectly. I did a couple of albums as Zeitgeber based around this thing (Heteronomy & Transforming The Random Crushing Forces Of The Universe Into Manageable Patterns).
Years later I got sick of the handpan I had as it was in D minor. I got so sick of D Minor and I couldn’t hear it anymore, so I sold it and bought a tank drum. The main difference between it and a handpan is that it has these magnets that go underneath and you can move them to raise and lower the pitch, so within reason you can more or less tune it to whatever you want.
I wrote a tune on that and it’s this kind of chill, really resonant thing on the upcoming Hashshashin EP.
It’s a really weird EP. It’s two songs that are rubab-based and one which is based around this tank drum piece which is totally leftfield. We were in the process of mixing it and I’m having a go of mixing it and I don’t know if it is going to work. But in terms of my drumming, in terms of the rubab pieces I tried to suit the rubab and that vibe. I’m playing my beats as I normally do, but more with nylon brushes because it’s quieter and the tone is quite nice. They have a more full low end that you don’t get with wire brushes.
So the tone is different. In terms of rhythm, my approach is not really different. Subconciously I try to make it more interesting than what the basic rhythm is, and I’ve always liked pushing and pulling the rhythm. Sometimes if it’s already interesting to me then just playing along and doing my thing to it is enough, but sometimes if the implied beat is coming from the rubab or bouzouki or whatever it is, I’m like “No, instead of that being a pulse that will be a cross-rhythm to my pulse” which is a polymetric trick.
Essentially I’m trying to adapt to whatever the situation is.