I’ve been thinking about the Violent Femmes recently, much more than usual. For the past several years, I’ll think about them every so often, usually when “American Music” wanders its way into my head. That’s about it though.
They aren’t around, then they are, then they’re gone again.
Yet recently, the band has been more present than normal because 2021 is something of milestone year for them and seeing as how I write stuff on the internet, I’m into milestones. For the Violent Femmes, 2021 is a year in which the band celebrates both 40 years together and the 30th anniversary of their 1991 album Why Birds Sing, the album that features “American Music.” When you’ve been around as long as the Violent Femmes have, such milestones are cause for celebration. And I’m sure they would be out there celebrating right now if not for you know, the pandemic. #getvaccinated
If you’re of a certain age, there is a decent chance the Violent Femmes also popped onto your radar at some point. And then they fell off that radar, most likely making their way back into the picture courtesy of streaming services. God, things like Spotify and Apple Music make it so easy to dive back into bands and artists you had forgotten about. I mean, they don’t make musicians any money and that sucks but in terms of accessibility, they’re not bad.
One thing that always stuck out to me about the Violent Femmes was the drums and how brush-heavy they always were. Almost every drummer flirts with brushes at some point, but for the Violent Femmes and their drummers (they’ve had three over the years,) it’s pretty much brushes or bust.
But that’s not only thing that makes the band’s drumming situation unique. Starting back with their original drummer Victor DeLorenzo, the drummer of the Violent Femmes has been standing up right alongside the band’s other two members, with the drummer playing some configuration of a stand-up kit. DeLorenzo would eventually incorporate a more traditional kit into the band’s live shows but for the most part, his main workspace was a stand-up kit, one that had several different variations but one narrative through line, something DeLorenzo talked about in 2005.
“It (his style) was based on a specific sound we had in mind – Brian and I in particular, before we met Gordon. We were really into what was happening with the early Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps recordings. The drummer in that band played a very small drumset, and sometimes he would just play a snare drum. That was the sound we wanted to go after, something very small yet powerful.”
Other Femmes drummers followed suit and the visual of all three members of the band standing up together has been a constant of theirs throughout their 40 year career.
And so as these things tend to happen, one thought (in this case, a thought about the band’s drumming) led to another thought – did any other bands ever use the stand-up kit and overall, I wonder what a list of bands with unique drumming situations would look like? I’m not talking about bands with drummers who used unique setups though. Every drummer’s set up is unique. I’m talking specifically about bands who had a unique drummer situation.
The Velvet Underground
For another example of a band with a drummer who played standing up, I went back to the 1960s and the Velvet Underground. The band’s second drummer, Moe Tucker wasn’t just a stand-up player, but a staunch minimalist.
Tucker chose to play standing up to make it easier to play the kick drum while her set up consisted of toms, a snare drum and a bass drum turned upwards. Tucker was opposed to cymbals (although she did use at least one from time to time,) saying that she believed a drummer’s job was to keep time and cymbals only worked to drown out the other instruments.
As a noted cymbal enthusiast, I would very much disagree. Cymbals are fantastic and she be used as much as possible. But alas, when it comes to drummers, to each their own.
Any conversation about bands with unique drumming situations would no doubt include the Dead, famous for their use of two drummers, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. Kreutzmann was there first, with Hart coming along 1967. The two made the two drummer thing work so well because of the different styles they brought to the table, Kreutzmann being a more traditional player and Hart being more of a worldly fellow with his playing.
The Dead having two drummers also really helped when it came to drummers looking to join a Dead cover band. More job opportunities. Bonus.
Of course, the Dead aren’t the only band to employ two drummers. Others include the Allman Brothers Band, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, King Crimson, …And You Will Know Us By Our Trail of Dead, Boredoms and more.
In the early 1960s, James Brown faced a rebellion within his backing band, with them threatening to not play a show. Unsurprisingly, Brown both didn’t take it well and made sure he wouldn’t be in such a situation again, allegedly saying after the performance that “I’ll never be caught without two of everything.”
Hence the JBs also having two drummers: Clyde Stubblefield, and John “Jabo” Starks. The two didn’t play at the same time all that much, instead alternating, something that probably proved beneficial for everyone involved given the nonstop, funk marathon-like nature of Brown’s shows. Both drummers left their mark on some of Brown’s most famous tunes, with Stubblefield dropping the beat for “Funky Drummer” and Starks laying it down on “Get Up.”
In recent years, there’s been a crop of indie bands out there such as White Rabbits and Local Natives that don’t have two drummers playing on drum sets, but have a drummer and at least one another member of the band banging away on floor toms.
Then there’s Slipknot, who had (or have…are Slipknot still around?) two dudes banging on drums in addition to their drummer.
Well, more like timpanis or over-turned bass drums. Whatever is needed to sound like impending doom seems like it would have done the trick.
Ah, yes. The band with the one-armed drummer. It doesn’t get much more unique than that.
Rick Allen joined Def Leppard in 1978 when he was only 15 years old. At 16, he had dropped out of school and was playing packed venues. But a few years later, things took a turn for Allen when he was involved in a car accident. With his Corvette crashing at high speed into a stone wall, Allen was thrown from the vehicle. Yet because his seat belt hadn’t been put on correctly, the belt cut between his shoulder and arm, severing his left arm from his body. Doctors later tried to reattach the arm but an infection led them to amputate it permanently.
Allen’s drumming career looked bleak as he recovered in the hospital with doctors telling him it was likely he’d never play again. His friends though, thought differently and encouraged him to get back out there. Another friend helped Allen out by designing a new kit for him as Allen wrote in 2016, “with the help of a guy called Pete Harley, who made me an electric kit and is now sadly no longer alive, I learned to play again.”
Through a collection of pedals that helped make up for his missing limb, Allen was able to start playing again and somewhat surprisingly, his bandmates were all for him rejoining the band.
“I’ve since learned that certain people asked the band, ‘You’re not going to let the freak show play with you onstage, are you?’ Fortunately, I didn’t hear any of that,” Allen wrote. And that’s pretty amazing when you think of it and a testament to how loyal the other members of Def Leppard were/are. I’m sure they probably thought once or twice about replacing Allen and it’s hard not blame them for that, but still, sticking with him and being patient with him as he relearned drums and got comfortable with a new setup is some solid teamwork.
A band where the drummer sings is not all that unique. Levon Helm with The Band is the gold standard but there’s a slew of bands out there with the drummer gets to handle lead vocals for a song or two.
What is unique is a band where the drummer is the lead singer, which is the case with Cowboy Mouth, a band best known for their early 90s hit “Jenny Says.” In Cowboy Mouth, Fred LeBlanc is the band’s frontman as well as their drummer and on stage is set up at center stage, lined up alongside the rest of the band.
Also unique or more specifically amazing about Cowboy Mouth is the staying power of “Jenny Says.” That song will never not be fantastic and best played incredibly loud.
There’s a reason why Guster always sounded a little different when they broke out back in the day and that reason was mostly due to the percussion that ran rampant throughout the band’s songs. While the music was mostly comprised of easy-going harmonies and tasty acoustic guitars, underneath that was a torrent of hand drums courtesy of the band’s percussionist Brian Rosenworcel.
Rosenworce (dubbed “Thundergod” by fans, which is also what Def Leppard fans called Rick Allen) smashed away bare-handed on congos, bongos and cymbals almost exclusively in the band’s early years. It wasn’t until later that he started incorporating a drum set but even still, the barrage of hand drums and the aches and pains that came with them remained.
Mumford and Sons
Mumford and Sons are mostly known for their fast-paced, reckless brand of folk music and drums aren’t commonly associated with the band. That’s mainly because for the most part, the drums aren’t super involved. On their first two albums the drums were limited to frontman Marcus Mumford stomping on a kick drum while singing and playing guitar. It gave the band the thump of drums without everything else that comes with drums.
Of course, much like with two-person bands like The Black Keys, Royal Blood or The White Stripes, self-imposed limitations gradually give way to reality and the desire for expansion. On the band’s third album Wilder Mind, the presence of drums in the band grew from a lone kick drum to a more standard drum set, one still being manned by Mumford.
And what a perfect way to bring this home with a twofer as Mumford and Sons are a band that at one-time barely had any drums and then became a band where the lead singer is the drummer. If Mumford and Sons suddenly adds a second drummer, I will feel vindicated in a way I don’t think I ever have before.