Jojo Mayer: Action Potential
Words by Tom Hoare
When I met Jojo, he was in the process of giving himself severe indigestion. In a basement jazz club just off Broadway, he was sat in the corner eating a large burger in manner that would have befitted accompanying narration from Sir David Attenborough. Given the circumstances, however, this is totally understandable. In about two minutes, he was due back on stage to play his second 90 minute set of the evening, along with famed guitarist David Fiuczynski.
Jojo Mayer is, in some ways, the drumming equivalent of Gary Kasparov – the Russian chess Grandmaster who famously battled IBM’s chess supercomputer, Deep Blue, back in the mid-nineties. They played six games, with Deep Blue eventually winning 3 1⁄2 to 2 1⁄2 . It represented a major victory for IBM: it was the first time a machine had ever defeated a chess Grandmaster.
Deep Blue’s victory ushered in an era where computers became the best chess players on the planet. Convinced IBM had cheated, Kasparov sought to re-humanise chess and in some senses he succeeded. He played two subsequent matches against machines and was able to force a draw in each.
Both Mayer and Kasparov have spent substantial parts of their careers working with machines that execute tasks which, historically, only humans were capable of performing. In Jojo’s case, he is probably best known for taking programmed rhythms and returning them to the acoustic drum set with his band Nerve. Prior to this, he hosted a club night in downtown Manhattan called Prohibited Beatz. It involved live musicians playing music traditionally spun by a DJ. It became somewhat infamous, and eventually closed in light of the NYC Cabaret Laws that made dancing in bars illegal, unless they had a specific license. At first I thought this was a joke but apparently it’s true.
Back in the jazz club, Jojo has about a minute to get back on stage. “I got thrown out of here once,” he states, grimacing through a mouthful of fries.
“Yeah. Luckily, it must have changed hands since then.” Before he has a chance to explain, the venue’s sound engineer arrives and, with an eyebrow-uniting scowl, begins gesturing menacingly to the stage. “On second thoughts, perhaps it hasn’t,” he grins.
A few days later, I met Jojo in a small restaurant near his apartment. Initially, we’d arranged to go to his house, but he’d decided, after having an outlandish party, that the place wasn’t fit to be photographed.
Jojo is the only person I’ve seen who can pull off a three-piece suit with flip-flops. This is unsurprising. He’s outspoken and not afraid of telling you exactly what he thinks. He is also a realist. He has an elaborate vocabulary which, when combined with his appreciation of a good metaphor, sometimes left me nodding in agreement when I actually had no idea what I was agreeing to. This isn’t a criticism, more an acknowledgement that he’s strongly opinionated and intellectually switched on. With Jojo, what you see is pretty much what you get.
The Drummer’s Journal: What time did you get home the other night?
Jojo Mayer: About 2pm. I had some business to take care of after.
Business to take care of? That sounds sinister...
Just sorting out money from the gig. Nothing too sinister happens here anymore (laughs).
As a kid did you ever want to do anything else, or were you always going to be a drummer?
Not really. My gift wasn’t free climbing or skateboarding or mathematics, but drums. I realised pretty early on there’s not a lot of people who get such an opportunity and I wanted to make the most of it.
Aren’t you interested in magic?
I’ve got a deck of cards. Can you do a trick?
Wow, you’re putting me on the spot here. Ok. I need to shuffle the deck properly first.
Ok, I’m going to riffle through the deck really quickly and you need to mentally pick a card and remember it, ok? (Riffles deck very fast in front of my eyes) Ok, so are you thinking of a card?
No, sorry I think I blinked.
Seriously? Ok, we’ll do it again (more shuffling and riffling of the deck). Ok, how about now?
Yeah I’ve got one. It’s the...
DON’T TELL ME! (Hands deck to me) Ok, now I need you to find your card in the deck. Just sort through and find it.
Ok (lots of painfully slow sorting). It’s not here. Where is it? It was the two of clubs...
Ahh. Wait – it’s not there?
No it’s not here.
(Jojo lifts up his coffee mug to take a drink, revealing the two of clubs stuck on the bottom. Lots of grinning.)
Wow. That’s genuinely impressive. How did you even get that under there?! And get it out of the deck so quickly?!
It’s magic. Anyway, are we not supposed to be talking about drums?
OK, I have some questions here... I think it’s safe to say you’re strongly opinionated, right?
Well, I suppose. I think it’s good to speak your mind.
You’ve said previously that academia has destroyed jazz. What do you mean by that?
Jazz is an art form that grew out of socio-political strife and the turn of the twentieth century was the first time we’d ever had recording technology to capture that. Ultimately, it became one of the most sophisticated disciplines in music ever. The problem with academia is that the essence of why an art form was originally important gets lost and it’s reduced to a set of rules and structures that all you need to do is imitate. You get taught a skeleton, but not the spirit. I went to music school for one year in Switzerland, and if I could change anything I’d choose not to go because it was a waste of time.
People say similar things about rock, that it’s lost all social relevance...
The problem with rock is that it has become a storefront for bullshit. The essence of rock ‘n’ roll was dissent of authority and showing the finger to people who disagree with you. Nowadays, there’s none of that. It’s a very conformist music style now. It’s almost reactionary. Take the whole hipster thing - it’s mass-consumerism disguised as individualism. It’s consumerism disguised as rebelliousness. Rock is the exact same.
So why has this happened?
Before file sharing, the major labels were morally bankrupt. Today, they’re financially bankrupt too. Their business models do not involve nurturing creativity. It’s easier to dumpster dive in the trash can of the past and the last Michael Jackson record is a good example. Those songs weren’t released because they weren’t good enough to make it onto a Michael Jackson record in the first place. Today, that doesn’t matter. They put them through the grinder regardless, then feed it to people because of corporate greed.
Ok, but they’re just selling it. You don’t have to buy it. Who is to say what people should or shouldn’t like? Does that not border on snobbery?
That’s true, but the problem we have right now is that our perception of what is good and bad is warped. The fashion industry, at a premium, sells worn, distressed denim, which is little more than selling fake life experiences. Is that not irrational? If you’re a kid in Brazil, having braces on your teeth is a status symbol because it shows that you can afford to go to a dentist. People get braces now when they don’t even need them. Similarly, women have caesareans to show that they can afford to go to a hospital to have their baby.
So what can a musician or an artist do to change perceptions?
I know I cannot stop starvation in Africa by playing drums. But I can change people’s perceptions about the extent to which it is an issue. It’s an artist’s responsibility to call out bullshit. Ultimately, if artists are not capable of changing or challenging people’s opinions, they shouldn’t be artists.
Would you call yourself a pessimist?
No, not at all. I wouldn’t be here if I was a pessimist. I’d sit in and watch TV. I wouldn’t do interviews. I’m an optimist, that’s why I’m here. It’s an extremely interesting time for creative people, but you’re on your own. Embrace that. Learn everything you possibly can so you can be as good as possible.
If you take something like the drum and bass scene in which you were quite involved, how have you seen that change?
The decline of jazz has taken about a century. The same thing happened in the drum and bass scene except that it took ten years. Drum and bass started something revolutionary but it turned into bullshit very quickly. Photek, for instance, who produced a number of ground-breaking records, ten years later can only produce trash.
Can you not look at it from the perspective of evolution and experimentation? Especially if you’re saying that’s what art should be doing?
Dark Side of the Moon is a truly great record but that doesn’t mean, by default, every Pink Floyd album will be too. As an artist, if you’re lucky enough to create something that people like, you have a choice either to believe the hype and start thinking of yourself as a god, or you can say, I appreciate this but I’m not going to let it change me. An artist’s downfall is when you start to believe the hype that surrounds you.
Would you say that you feel like a bit of an outsider with regards to what you’re saying about mass-consumerism?
Absolutely. I was always an outsider. That’s what was dealt to me.
In what respect?
Just small things. When I went to kindergarten I could speak five languages. The reason I came to New York was that in Switzerland people are closed-minded. I have the same musical ambitions now as I did 25 years ago in Switzerland, but there people were like, “you just can’t do that.” I was fed up being confronted by the limitation of people’s ideas of what I should do. Instead, I decided I’d let failure or success determine if my ideas were any good.
Would it annoy you if people thought of you as a drum and bass drummer?
(Laughs.) I’m not a drum and bass drummer. That’s bullshit. I can’t control what people think of what I do. Really, I’m a jazz and rock drummer, I just don’t sound like one. It sounds like I’m playing drum and bass, but really, it’s what I learnt playing jazz or rock.
You came to New York 25 years ago, do you feel like you’ve now achieved what you set out to achieve?
In certain respects, yes. I think I was a bit naïve, childish and ego driven at first. When I saw Tony Williams live for the first time, I was 16. As Miles Davis said, it was the best time I’d had with my clothes on. I wanted to be able to do that when I grew up, to give that sort of musical performance on stage.
Is there anything you’re particularly proud of?
I once met a girl who said she’d seen one of my shows and the next day had gone and quit the job she hated. I was humbled to have had an impact on someone like that, to give her the confidence to quit. She was empowered by something I’d done. I’m proud of that.
You’ve previously said that the last innovation in drumming was the blast beat. Is that still the case?
In terms of drumming culture, the time and dedication that people have put into developing complex musical vocabularies has been rendered completely useless. We need to be looking for the drummer who is going to connect with the shamanistic potential that the drums have and not just exhibit geekery. I mean, technical brilliance was comprehensively covered by Zappa and Bozzio. Now, I’m not sure it can go anywhere new.
So what options would you suggest are open to people looking to progress their career?
Don’t listen to people in magazines talking about getting PR agents and the importance of social media. Instead, start by orientating yourself to things that will likely never go out of fashion: honesty, sincerity and enthusiasm. Take these basic values and put them into your music, and it will be worth hundreds of times more than all the Facebook “likes” in the world.
It’s easy to say that, but in reality there’s a generation growing up who, through no fault of their own, believe recorded music isn’t really worth money.
That’s true. I just completely surrendered to the fact I can’t really sell music anymore. I give it to people for free and suggest a donation. And lots of people do donate. So we need to recalibrate the perception that music is as disposable as the coffee you’d drink for the same price.
How do you instigate such a recalibration though?
You certainly don’t do it by preaching to people. You do it by convincing people that you’re worth something, that what you’re doing is interesting and empowering. You need to create something for people to support. Show people it’s not just another pop album you can download for free. It’s about making a connection with people, a connection that inspires action, involvement and interest.
So your ultimate advice to any aspiring musician would be...
Buy music. Buy a ticket to a show. Do not watch shitty movies. Don’t just complain. Instead take action. You can make the change. You. Make a decision to support what you believe in, not what someone tells you that you should. People will respect you. I certainly will.
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