Drumm Don’t Strum

Kevin Drumm deals in strange vocabularies. By day he’s a pit reporter at the Board of Trade, deciphering the frantic shouts and gestures of traders and translating them into the symbols that slide along stock tickers around the world. In his off-hours he also acts as a sort of translator, absorbing the languages of various musical instruments and styles he likes and relaying them in the distinctive voice he’s developed as a tabletop guitarist.

Drumm, a 28-year-old native of South Holland, didn’t know he was building on tradition when he started sticking things in the strings of his guitar back in 1991. Like prepared piano–a technique popularized by John Cage in which objects are placed within the instrument to damp the strings or rattle against them–the tabletop method transforms the guitar from a chordal instrument into a noisemaker. Bands like Sonic Youth and Live Skull got noticed for wedging drumsticks and screwdrivers through the strings of their axes, but tabletop guitar is far more radical, a pure-sound approach pioneered by experimentalists like Fred Frith and AMM’s Keith Rowe.

“The first time I met Jim O’Rourke I told him what I did and he said, ‘Oh, prepared guitar,'” says Drumm. “I thought what I was doing was kind of silly, and I’m still a little embarrassed by it.” Among his tools are a toenail clipper, magnets, binder clips, a modified antenna, a fan, chains, and a violin bow.

Drumm played conventional guitar in a few rock bands in the late 80s. But when he moved into the city in ’91 to work at the Board of Trade he didn’t have anyone to play with, and so spent time practicing–and experimenting–on his own. Going to shows, he began to meet musicians from the local improvised music scene. One of his first partnerships was with Ken Vandermark–he played on the reedist’s album Standards (Quinnah) in 1995. “I would listen to the way saxophone players dipped into things. These sounds that someone like Mats Gustafsson makes–pfoom! and ssssck!–I started making noises like that with the guitar,” Drumm says. In 1994 and ’95 he gigged several times a week, frequently on Monday nights at Myopic Books, where he curated the improv series for a while.

In 1996, however, he decided it was time for more woodshedding, and the results of his solitary exploration were released late last year by Perdition Plastics as Kevin Drumm. It’s one of the most original guitar recordings in years: though the jarring, discombobulating sounds aren’t without precedent, they’ve previously been achieved only with the aid of computers (the Austrian sound artists Pita) or tape collage (German experimentalists P16.D4). Using only volume and equalizer pedals, Drumm combines squealing feedback, industrial-strength amp buzz and hum, and abrupt silences with an arsenal of genuinely unidentifiable noises, some intentional and some happy accidents. The choppy phrases and violent swoops clearly mimic European improvised music, but Drumm yanks them completely out of context. The disc is abstract and disturbing, and it’s not for everyone, but for anyone interested in raw sound as a means of expression it’s essential listening.

Unfortunately there’s not much more Drumm out there to listen to: there are only a couple of long tracks on a new split CD with Japanese guitarist Taku Sugimoto, Folie a Deux (Boxmedia); performances by himself and in the trio Corine on the compilation Sonance Quarry (Tautology); and an album-length piece built around a two-note organ drone that should come out on O’Rourke’s new Moikai label in the fall. A few weeks ago, at Thurston Moore’s request, Drumm opened for Sonic Youth at the Riviera–where the crowd was surprisingly attentive–but no future shows are currently booked. “I’ve never asked to play a gig before,” he says. “I always feel like I’d be imposing. I feel better when people ask me to play.”


On Friday the Vandermark 5 celebrate the release of their new Target or Flag (Atavistic) with a performance at the Empty Bottle. Vandermark’s writing shows continued signs of growth: on the funky opener, “Sucker Punch,” his grooves and precisely contrapuntal riffs reveal a new elasticity, and the lovely ballad “The Start of Something” is the most restrained performance I’ve ever heard from the group. A rare duo performance by tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and former Sun Ra Arkestra drummer Robert Barry kicks things off.

On Tuesday at 6 PM, as a warm-up for next weekend’s Chicago Blues Festival, the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute will screen Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl?, a new documentary about Robert Johnson narrated by Danny Glover. David “Honeyboy” Edwards, one of the last living associates of the legendary bluesman, will perform a short set afterward. Call 312-443-3737 for more information.

Readers of this column may recall that last November, Schubas booker Anastasia Davies left the club where she’d spent four years creating a comfortable place for alt-country and off-kilter folk music. At the time, she wasn’t sure if her next move would involve music, but last week Davies was hired by the even more roots-oriented club FitzGerald’s, in Berwyn. Club owner Bill FitzGerald says he was looking for a little relief after booking the club himself for 17 years, and that in the coming months he’ll be busy developing a restaurant next door to the club with Sheila McCoy, proprietor of the Wicker Park institution Leo’s Lunchroom.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kevin Drumm photo by Lloyd DeGrane.