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A conversation with Dave DiCenso: Part 1

By Steve Holmes

Dave DiCenso

I had the pleasure of doing the first real interview for House Of Drumming.com recently. There is a very short list of drummers I was interested in interviewing and am lucky enough to now check Dave DiCenso off that list.

While Dave was in Los Angeles we met up and got breakfast where I immediately started picking his brain about the drummer-journey that got him from the now famous Two-Ton Show video filmed in Dave’s earlier years, to the amazing display of vocabulary and feel in the 2006 Modern Drummer Festival, to the recent tour with Josh Groban:

A mp3 of the interview is available here.

Part 2 here.

Steve Holmes: Talk to me about the process – if there is any – of drum parts, and the element of- because you have a lot of chops. Or you have a good vocabulary I should say. Some drummers have trouble restraining that vocabulary in a musical setting to where it’s not a god thing to play lots of chops.

Dave DiCenso: A big thing for me is metaphors. Drawing parallels to music, or from music to say. Painting. Or cooking. The best ones I think are conversation, and storytelling. And we’re not just talking about drumming, but the whole ensemble. You’re up there. You’re having a conversation. There’s a subject. A lyrical subject or a melodic or rhythmic subject. A context held together by some organizing rhythmic principal. Like a clave. There’s something beyond the quarter note, and I say this in Universal Rhythms, that is tying everything together.

SH: Would you say that’s the groove?

DD: No. My buddy and I were listening to an Elton John tune last night that is escaping me at the moment, but he was playing clave in the pre-chorus. The drummer wasn’t, but he was. And the way the clave was dancing with the vocal, that syncopation – and that’s another great metaphor: dancing. You want to create partners, for the parts. I want to create a great partner for that bass line, the guitar part, the vocal part. And when you dance you don’t just go up and bear hug somebody and wrap your legs around them. There’s dimension. There’s contrast. Peter Erskine said that recently in something I read. He said our job is to create contrast. It’s a painter’s job. It’s a story teller’s job. There’s got to be contrast to keep the listener engaged.

In painting, in nature, one of the things that draw me to it is the contrast. I love seeing rooftops, and roof-peaks, and then chimneys and then trees and then maybe a river so you can just see it glimmer through trees and then the sky, and maybe mountains before that. There’s so much depth to that rather than looking at…this table. I’m always looking for a rhythmic thing that I can hang my part on. Not necessarily play it, but play around it. So if the bass player is going:

Sings sample bass line and drum part that mirrors it rhythmically

That might be the best thing to do, but you have to hear beyond that. You’ve got to hear within that so you have a voice of your own. So you’re not just repeating what somebody’s already saying… unless, it’s the best thing to do. But you want options. Back to the conversation metaphor: if you and I are hanging out and we’re talking about football. If every time you started to say something, I started talking really loud, it’s not going to work. You’re going to be like, “Dude, what the f***!” There’s only so much space in the music. And the better you listen, the less you say. There’s just no two ways about it. The more you hear, the less you will say. Because people are saying shit already. So you gotta find your spots, and there’s not much room. There are not that many spots to find because the space is taken up.

It’s much easier for me as I’ve gotten older to find my place in the music, and not say too much because I can hear better now. And, there’s so much being said. In pop music, it’s all about the vocal. My buddy said to me recently, and I loved this compliment. We were rehearsing for a show and we were hanging out after and he said “You sound great man; you’re doing so much for this music…” Then he pauses and I said thanks. Then he says “…and you’re not even doing anything! You’re not even doing anything! “

I’m not playing any 32nd notes; I’m barely playing 16th notes half the time. But where I am choosing to place my emphasis, which could greatly affect the music – the impact of the music. The shape of the music. And you gotta be really careful as a rock drummer to..deviate from the bass line. It can feel like the bottom can drop out. Suddenly the bass and the bass-drum split …but there can be so much gained from that too! So – you gotta have it all.

SH: So that’s a strategic thing that you think about. When I’m going to be with the bass player, and when I’m going to separate to create two different layers.

DD: Definitely. Contrast. Dimension. To me dimension in the drumming world is like…

Dave asks me to sing a sample bass line while he sings some sample drum parts that are around it, not mirroring rhythmically as before

It’s creating that contrast but it’s also funky. And I know that’s funky from my ears, but I also know it’s funky from an intellectual stand-point because I know what I just did is the second permeantation of the clave. So I know that mathematically it makes sense. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to sound good. But I know that it makes sense. I know those two rhythms. They like each other in my opinion.

So these are some ways where I feel like I’ve gotten better. To me that’s a difference between being a good drummer and a good musician. You can be the baddest drummer on the planet, but if you do not know how to listen and converse, and tell a story, then you’re just a great drummer. You’re not a great musician, in my opinion. And I feel like I’m just getting there; where I’m starting to be that musician. I think I’ve been a good drummer for a long time, you know, I can play but…I think the musical aspect of it, it comes a little after that…for most people, and that was certainly my case.

SH: Now how much of that has to do with drumming and how much of that has to do with a lifetime of listening to music?

DD: For me, I think it’s mostly about listening to music. But I’ll tell you something that helped me tremendously with writing Universal Rhythms. Through that process I sort of stumbled along my way trying to write this book and organize and theorize and formulate, etc. Before I wrote my book Universal Rhythms I couldn’t hear a fraction of what I can hear now against the clave. Now I can hear it and execute it. I can hear it in silence. I can hear a clave right now and I can hear a counter rhythm.

SH: You keep coming back to clave. How much time are you spending listening to Latin music?

DD: None. It’s not about the clave instrument, again as I state in the book, it’s everywhere. It’s in Elton’s piano. It’s in Bob Marley’s vocals. It’s everywhere. And if it’s not clave, it’s this:

snaps a variation of the 3-2 clave with the last note shifted a 16th later. Then sings a funk guitar part using that same rhythm.

How many funk guitar players have played that part? So that’s why I keep coming back to it.

Sings Bob Marley’s “So Much Trouble in the World” while snapping the clave pattern.

So if Bob Marley came to me and said “Hey man check this out…” and he starts singing that line. I immediately intellectualize: we’re in 3-2 clave and I got at least eight ideas right off the top of my head. Eight ways to converse with that rhythm. Doesn’t mean all eight are going to be good. But I have a resource that I can go to in my head to begin the process of responding to that.

SH: I sympathize with guys that are not in a place to where they have the right kind of motive because they’re not hearing the music; they’re not hearing the big picture. So if you have a lot of chops, if you’ve spent time working on a drum vocabulary then the nature of that thing is that it’s always on deck. At the end of every four bars, something comes up. One of your things says “I’m ready to be played!” And the mental process of saying no. No it’s not about you. I don’t want to play this now I want to listen to the music. I need to serve the big picture and have the conversation like you’re saying. That’s a thing. That’s a really big, major thing. And it sounds like you’re really coming from a really good place. It also sounds like once you’re there, the sun is shining bright and it’s so obvious. It shouldn’t be any other way.
But what I’m saying is the other side of it, the guys that are not there, which is why I ask how much of that is drumming and how much is listening to music? I was brought up with a lot of music, and I hear a new song from someone and you immediately start self-producing your drum part. You’re your own producer and you’re your own mixer and some drummers don’t realize that. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently. There’s just so much involved in what you’re talking about. There are so many things other than…playing.

DD: Mixing, you just said.

SH: Yes. Self-mixing and dynamics.

DD: Huge.

SH: Fitting in volume wise and based on the venue and what’s happening – especially if you want to be part of the big picture. There’s so much stuff other than playing which is what I tell my students: practice the drum stuff while you can. Because when you’re on stage, you want that to take care of itself and you want to worry about all the other stuff like: Am I pushing, am I pulling, how’s the feel, am I fitting in volume wise, am I stepping on anyone, am I plying the right parts??!! And you can’t practice that in the shed. You can simulate it but it’s not the same. The drums are going to sound totally different in the venue.

DD: One thing is like you said, listening to a lot of music. It’s not about drumming. You’re not going to get to where we’re talking about from practicing drums and paradiddles. The other thing is developing some sort of system where you can articulate context and content simultaneously.

So for example, context: clave. So if I come into a situation and the guitar player is playing clave and the singer is dancing around that with his rhythm, and the bass player is doing whatever he’s doing, I have to find a context. Some sort of rhythmic thing, beyond the quarter note, that is repetitive that I can hang my hat on. That’s the context. Whatever I do within that, whatever any of us do within that is the content.

So in a very practical way, if I’m vocalizing the clave…

Counts out 16th notes and emphasizes the notes where the clave falls

A great discipline in my opinion is to clap the permeantations of the quarter note against the clave with the voice, and f***ing kill it. Kill every one of those permeantations with your hand clap while singing that clave pattern. It’s the same procedure that I do in Universal Rhythms, but a more elementary level. So instead of doing permeantations of the clave, which I do in the book, you could do…permeantations of the half note. And now flip the paradigm. Flip the paradigm so now you can clap the clave, and subdivide the permutations, then ask yourself: Can I hear this inside my head? Can I hear this without doing it? For me, that made a huge difference, that’s all I can say. I can hear better I think in large part, due to me writing that book and forcing myself through these disciplines that I was going to challenge the reader to do.

So, that, listen to a f***-load of music, and don’t listen to the drums. Listen to the song six times, and listen to each instrument in the tune. The other thing is just playing. Playing with musicians. I mean that seems obvious but…

SH: There’s no substitute for that.

DD: Right, there’s no substitute for that.

SH: It’s interesting though because practicing in the shed, it only helps so much. Even for guys that have mastered facility. These extreme-drumming double-bass wizards, these clinician type guys.

DD: This discussion is not to the exclusion of playing chops though, you can still play chops and be a mother-f***er of a musician. You just have to listen. That sounds simple, it’s more than that. But it’s like, eventually, you get to the point where you just have to listen.

SH: Right, instead of playing. You listen, and then you play. As opposed to just turning on my “on” switch, and do my thing, and hope that it works.

DD: Exactly.

SH: ‘Cuz that will work accidentally, sometimes. That’s what I’m saying; if you keep throwing darts you’re eventually going to get a bulls-eye.

DD: You know I’ve been having my students write essays. Give me an essay on the characteristics of a good story. The next week in will be painting. So we start drawing these parallels. I find it invaluable, personally, and my students Love it.

SH: They pay you for that? (Laughs) “Dave here’s a hundred dollars, I’m going to go home and write a paper now.”
No I’m kidding. I see the value in the exercise.

DD: It’s really an advanced thing man. Have you heard the saying “There are no good drummers under the age of thirty”? I think what people mean by that is that there are no good musicians who play drums under the age of thirty. Because it takes that long for a drummer to get their shit together. And then they can start to look outside themselves. They’ve got their technique, they’ve got their vocabulary, and they’ve got their time. It’s like OK, now the real work begins. It’s time to become a musician.

SH: You spend a lifetime putting together a pallet of thousands of colors, then it’s just learning how to get Red, Green, and Blue to work. The right way.
I think you’re the perfect example of learning all the rules, and then choosing which ones to break, and choosing which ones to ignore. As opposed to never learning the rules and playing simple because that’s the only way you can play. That I’m not too big a fan of.

DD: I had an interesting conversation about that recently. Just the whole idea of our limitations, defining us. I heard a singer/song-writer Jonatha Brooke say that once. There’s something about that. My feeling on that is learn everything, and then choose what you use. But some people have used their limitations very well to their advantage. I think there’s a freedom in limitation. It’s a complete paradox. What you don’t know can be very liberating. Keith Richards. He’s not a great guitar player, technically speaking, but he said it in his book: Neither I or Ronnie is the greatest guitar player but together we’re better than ten.

When I play bass, or piano… I f*** up on the piano and it’s like “WHOAAA”. I knew that sound existed, but I didn’t know how to do it. The jury’s still out for me on this, I still think about it.
I kind of got pigeon-holed early on in my career as a chops guy. And at some point I just wanted to get back to my roots which was growing up in the 70’s and listening to pop music, R & B, which was pop back then. Just being that drummer playing with a great singer on a great song. There’s a part of me now….for the most part I just don’t want to play a lot of notes. There are certain gigs where obviously it’s needed, and its fun. But by and large…

Then you start getting into recording and engineering. The more notes you play the harder it is to get that sound to pop out. Just hit a 12” tom, and “doof!” You don’t want to hear (mimics lots of fasts notes) in most cases, as an engineer. You just want to hear that full voice.

SH: Well it’s interesting. You say that but you’ve put in the ten-thousand hours working on the vocabulary. What was the motive behind that? Was it just being younger? Because you’ve got – it really is exceptional. The Modern Drummer festival performance is one of my all-time favorite performances. The clinic video at Daddy’s. I just wouldn’t think the guy that has spent the amount of time mastering that shit would be the same guy that is saying what you’re saying. I’m just fascinated at the unlikely-hood of it occurring.

I understand that. And I don’t mean to come off as judgmental to someone who’s into playing a lot of chops.

SH: Right because you were that guy. You did the MD fest and you could have played anything. And you played un-accompanied for like twenty minutes!

DD: Right. I am not passing judgment on anybody. Just…
Did you ever see the movie Adaptation?

SH: No, I haven’t seen that one. (EDIT by Steve: I recently saw the movie since this interview and recommend it. It’s on Netflix. )

DD: You gotta check it out. It’s with Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper. Meryl Streep’s character interview’s Chris Cooper’s character, who is this guy down in Florida whose a horticulturist. He’s a crazy smart dude who goes into the deep marshes of Florida and extracts Orchids and grows them in a green-house. She’s a journalist for the New-Yorker. When she gets to know him she discovers that at one point in his life, he was all about the ocean. He knew all about the ocean, and fish. He knew of every kind of fish that existed on the planet. She was stunned that he abandoned that and had since become a prominent figure in this whole other world.

So when asked about this, he says “…one day I decided I’m never going to set foot in the ocean again.” When asked why he just says…”one day i just decided, Fuck fish.”

Fuck fish.

(Steve’s note: :check out the scene here )

DD: The reason I bring that up is because I really, I just entered a different part of my life. He said fuck fish, I’m not saying fuck chops, or fuck ..anything. But I have definitely become enamored with…a different thing.
Maybe I’m over thinking or over-talking this but you seem…pleasantly surprised that I’m a guy who has these chops but…but what?

SH: But it takes so little effort to…discard them. Which is why I initially asked about the process of suppressing them.

DD: I don’t think it was so ..little effort. I think it took a while.


DD: And you know what? There was a point when I was suppressing chops where I think I started to under-play. It’s like I didn’t know what to do if I wasn’t saying a lot.

SH: Now is that out of fear…or…?

DD: It’s out of ignorance. I didn’t really…know what to say. In retrospect I think it was because I wasn’t listening well enough, and I didn’t have …I was still formulating a concept.

SH: It seems to me that the quality of the music that’s being played, while you’re playing, really serves as the motivation for everything. If you’re in a band and it’s not happening, if it’s just garbage, then you’re just going to start to fill in the gaps. It’s kind of like …I’ll be a gentleman with the right woman. But if I’m going to end up with some tramp, then guess what.

DD: That’s a good point.

SH: So it seems like you’re in a place in your career where you’re playing in bands that you really like, and playing music that you really like and so you’ve got the best motivation…to be a gentleman. You know how to not be a gentleman too…but it’s the process. I guess one of the conclusions that we’re stumbling on is that… The music serves as the motive.
You know I’m a huge Vinnie fan and I think it’s interesting that he has so much vocabulary but he knows how to turn it off. And he’s one of the few guys that can really turn it off-off. And that guys recording discography is ridiculous. I can’t even imagine back when he was younger and he had more chops than anyone, even then…just turning it off. That’s interesting, I’m fascinated with that.

DD: I wonder if some of it has to do with being a fan of that kind of drumming. Of where you turn it off. I mean…I know people who…if there aint any 16th notes, what’s the use of listening to it? In the past I would get hip to something and show it to one of my buddies and I can tell they don’t get it. One of my drumming buddies who’s into chops. They don’t get it.

SH: So you’d be like “Hey check out how fat this groove is.”… and… he’s not making the faces.


SH: (Laughing) He’s not making the faces dude! Which is the litmus-paper test for if you get it or not.

SH: ( Sarcastic nerd voice) “… I don’t really understand. It’s just a simple groove…”

SH: Seriously though, you get ten guys to play a simple groove, not all of them are going to sound like Gadd, right? So I get what you’re saying. It took me a while too. I remember trying. I bought a Gadd-Gang tape when I was young. I didn’t get it man. I listened to it, and then put “Grace Under Pressure” from Rush back on instead and continued memorizing drum parts. Maybe it’s the kind of thing you just can’t force. I had heard so much about Gadd but it wasn’t until I got into jazz, then going back and listening to the Paul Simon stuff.
And then later I have my own experiences playing drums in a band and it’s like…OK….play drums. Play music. Come up with drum parts… and you realize the enormity of that! Then you go back and listen and tell yourself Gadd was in the same position and THIS is what he played. That’s what always fascinates me of his drum parts that I love. Gadd came in, listened to this track, and THIS is what he came up with. There’s not a book in the world that teaches that.

DD: I was just going to say that.

SH: There’s not a book or video in the world. That comes from a lifetime of listening to music and then self-producing.

DD: You know man, one of my missions is to get my method out there more pervasively. Especially with this next book. Because I feel so strongly and believe in it so strongly that it can help people to hear better. To create their own rhythmic dance right in their own head any time they want. To hear context and content simultaneously. To be able to project them simultaneously. It’s helped me as a composer. It’s helped me as a piano player. It’s helped me as a drummer, a composer who’s sitting behind a drum set. Either improvising, or coming up with a part. Tremendously.
You know, I was in one band in particular that I remember where it was often the bass player that would come up with a line.

Sings a sample funk bass line

More often than not I would get up on his shit, and play what he was already playing. Because I couldn’t hear anything else. Maybe I heard quarter notes-over it, but that wasn’t where my head was at.

Sings a drum part with the same rhythms of the bass part

That’s like two people on the same side of the canoe. And so the boat goes…

SH: You’re just going to go in a circle.

DD: Exactly! And we’re going to work pretty hard to do that. To me it’s really clear. You don’t do that. Or if you do, everyone else in the ensemble is somewhere else, all over the place and you have to get on that bass player to keep the continuity. But other than that I’m so into the idea of finding the holes, finding the spaces. And it’s like, all these cliché’s that you’ve heard over all these years: “Less is more” and “Play for the song”, they really start to hit home. It’s just more fun.

The more you can hear, the more fun music is.

Part 2 of this interview .


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