Aaron Comess is a genre-busting musician who plays in several bands, has a diverse catalog of solo albums, and has played on over 100 albums for dozens of different artists. His new album, Sculptures, is a fantastic foray into electronic and ambient jazz. There’s tons of great rhythmic stuff going on throughout the album. There are some great melodies. There are pretty sections, goofy sections, ugly sections. The album has everything. Even my wife likes a bunch of it!
Interview Audio (Podcast)
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AG: Aaron Comess is a drummer based in Brooklyn, New York and he is most notably known for his work with the rock band, the Spin Doctors, which have been active for how many years now?
AC: Believe it or not, it’s gonna be 30 years this October.
AG: Oh my goodness, 30 years! And believe it or not, Turn It Upside Down by the Spin Doctors was the first CD I ever bought with my own money.
AC: Well thank you very much.
AG: Yeah, yeah! I fell in love with the album previous to that, I can’t remember the name right now. Krypto–
AG: Pocket Full of Kryptonite. Yeah. I listened to that over and over and over, so when I had money–I got that BMG membership. You know, the 10 CDs?
AC: Oh yeah. That’s right.
AG: So I got Turn It Upside Down. That was the one that I bought for $18 or something at the time. But anyway–
AC: That’s cool. That’s great!
AG: Enough about me! [Laughs.]
AC: Well thank you. Thanks for buying it.
AG: Yeah, sure. So, yeah, Aaron–why don’t you talk about what you’ve done, not only with the Spin Doctors, but you’ve had a long career. You’ve been playing drums as a musician for 30 years now–beyond 30 years.
AG: I’m sure most of us don’t know what you’re doing outside the Spin Doctors. So, let’s talk about that.
AC: Well, okay. There’s been a lot of different things over the years. I grew up in Dallas, Texas and I started out playing out of books like this, rudimentary drumming. My first teachers taught me how to hold my sticks like this. That’s why I play traditional because basically day one, I walked in there and he said, “Hold this one like a hammer.” That was easy. And then when he showed me this, I was nine years old and it just feels totally weird. But I stuck with it and I love it and that’s the only reason that I play traditional grip, really, is because my very first teacher, Jack Iden, that’s how he showed me to hold the sticks. And I like it. I’m glad that I do it because so many of my favorite drummers play that way. I like the way it looks, I like the way it feels.
So, growing up in Dallas, I had a lot of great teachers there. I was really lucky to have a really good music program going on in the Dallas school district back then. I went to a really great high school called the Arts Magnum High School. Half the day I was playing big band, small group, music theory, and it was great. I had this whole collective of friends in Dallas. I still do. Great musicians. We would basically jam after school and jam on the weekends and there is just a ton of great musicians down there. All kinds of people who’ve gone on to do tons of great stuff.
Anyway, so then I moved up to Berklee, did a year at Berklee, which was great. That was the year I practiced ten hours a day and just lived in the practice room. It really did a lot for me. I really developed good discipline for practice, which has stuck with me to this day. I think practice is a really important thing and it’s good to have some discipline and have a routine with it. I always practiced, even in high school, I studied and took lessons and worked really hard.
But it was that year that I think things really changed because it’s the beauty of going away to college and graduating high school and having that opportunity to not have to work a real job and just focus. Live and breathe the stuff. It really can change–I think you can change the way you play. Anything that you put a ton of time into, you can see massive changes.
That one year at Berklee was the year that I think I really got my stuff together. A lot. It changed the way I played. I moved back to Dallas for a year and played in a bunch of different bands. I played pretty much every gig under the sun. From jazz bands, rock bands, blues bands, wedding gigs, you name it, I did it.
And then I decided I wanted to move to New York. I always knew that I either wanted to be in LA or New York. I was kind of attracted to New York. I liked the vibe here. A lot of the records I grew up listening to, particularly the jazz records, I’d look on it and see so much of the stuff was going on here. I’d been here a few times from when I went to Berklee. I’d take a bus down and check out the city.
Anyway, I heard about The New School. Actually, Roy Hargrove, the trumpet player. I went to high school with Roy. In that year that I was back in town between Berklee and New York, we did a lot of gigs together. We were driving up to Denver to a gig one night and he handed me the–I was telling him I was thinking about going to New York City and he handed me this pamphlet. He was like, “Man, I heard about this place, The New School. They’re starting a jazz program there.” So that’s how I heard about it.
I came up here and auditioned and this great, great saxophone player and teacher named Arnie Lawrence was the head of the school. I auditioned for him and it was a great audition. I basically did the playing part of it, everything was cool. Then he said, “Okay, cool. Come on up to my office for the interview section.” So he looks me in the eye and said, “You really want to deal with this bullshit?” And I said, “Yep.” He said, “You’re in the school.” It was great, you know? Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about. I was 19 years old, you know? Of course, now I get it. But anyway, it was great. I moved up to New York.
This guy was incredible. He was a real mentor. I turned out doing a lot of gigs with Arnie and once the Spin Doctors got together, he would play a lot of shows with us. Anyway, at the time, it was just a great group of people at The New School. I met the guys in The Spin Doctors there, Eric [Schenkman] and Chris [Barron]. John Popper from Blues Traveler was there. And then you had Brad Mehldau was there, Larry Goldings, and Peter Bernstein, and just a ton of incredible musicians. So many of them have gone on to do great stuff and are active.
It was just a really cool environment and there was none of this–we were the rock band in school. I was playing jazz, too. I was always doing all the jazz stuff, but I was also in this rock band. We were gigging around town and we’d rehearse up at the school. Then you often find in the jazz school world that people are very snobbish and the jazzers don’t want to hang out with the rock guys and the rock guys don’t want to hang out with the jazz guys. You felt a little bit of that at Berklee, although I was also the guy at Berklee that was–I’d be doing a jazz session, a blues session, a heavy metal session. This was 1986 when I went there.
I always just ignored all that stuff. I was like, “Listen, I’m into everything. I’m going to do everything. If you don’t like it, I don’t care. This is who I am.” But I found in the New School, everybody there was just so open-minded. Brad Mehldau, he would come out to our gigs and I remember him saying how much he liked The Allman Brothers and he dug our band. Same thing with Peter Bernstein and Larry Goldings. It was just a great environment.
Anyway, to make a long story short, we started playing all over New York. We took kind of the opposite approach to most bands at the time, which was everybody wanted to get a record deal. Everybody would rehearse five nights a week and try to get a big showcase and get a record deal. That was the goal. For us, we just totally flipped it. Our goal was we wanted to write songs, we wanted to be a really great band, we wanted to be unique and do our own thing and we wanted to get gigs and pay our rent playing our own music. That was pretty much it. So we decided, rather than rehearsing five nights a week, let’s try to play five nights a week.
We just played everywhere in New York. We used to call it “the tour of Manhattan.” We just gigged and gigged and gigged. There was a lot of different clubs we could play at. We kind of had our core spots. We were always trying different places. Everybody was like, “There’s all these rules,” which they still have. Like, “If you play here, you can’t play anywhere in town for two weeks beforehand.” We were like, “Okay.” And we would be playing down the street the next night. It’s ridiculous. How are we supposed to make a living playing one [place]?
We just ignored all that and the cool thing is because we were doing it so much, a couple things happened. For one, it was the greatest way to develop our sound and our music because, let’s face it, nothing beats playing in a group in front of people. Rehearsing is great, and that’s key as well, practice is great, but there’s something that happens when you’re actually on stage in front of an audience. It doesn’t happen in the rehearsal room. And so we really developed our sound fully from just playing night after night and we would play three hours.
It wasn’t like now where you get a 45-minute set. We played places where we could play the whole night. We would do–we might do a set–we played this place called The Nightingale Bar on 2nd Ave, it was kind of our home turf. We’d go on at 10, we played til 11:30 or 12, we’d take a break, and then we’d play til 2. Sometimes we’d do a third set. On weekends, we’d do the classic third set and we’d play until 4 in the morning. We’d literally play five-hour gigs. It was great. We got really good doing that and we developed a voice of our own. Our own sound.
As a drummer, it was a great opportunity to be in my own creative band where we could pretty much do what we wanted to do and kind of develop my own sound. So that was great. Through that we, just based on getting a big fan-base, the record companies started coming and we got a record deal.
Anyway, so based on just the constant gigging, we built up a really big fanbase in town. Eventually it just became this undeniable thing. Management and record companies started approaching us. We were very standoffish because we were a very self-sufficient band and we didn’t want anybody to come in and fuck with us. Eventually, we found a manager we liked and he got us a record deal and blah blah blah. Went on, obviously. It took a long time. We did a live record, we put out the first record to really–kind of silence. But we kept touring and kept touring and eventually sparked some interest about a year and a half in. And then things kind of blew up and went where they went.
AG: Yeah, you were totally in the right place at the right time. It’s awesome.
AC: Yeah, it was a good time. That era was a good time for bands and for the music business. It was really thriving. CDs were only three or four years old, so the record companies had a ton of money because they were selling cassettes, CDs, they were still selling vinyl. People were going back and buying their favorite records from the old days on CD again. So, as hard as it was, and it was really hard, there was that opportunity if you could get to that point where you could get that support. We had to really fight for it.
Our record company was not really behind us at all. They did pretty much nothing and–in fact, after about a year, they were like, “Come back. This record’s dead. Make a new record.” We were like, “Listen, we’re out here on the road with absolutely no help from you. We’re making a living. We’re packing clubs around the country. 400-500 people are coming out. There’s a buzz.” So we decided to just go back out on the road and push it. We had this weird feeling. We could feel something was brewing. And that’s what we did. And a spark came out and the record company decided, “Okay, this is worth it.” They put some money behind it and boom. You know? So, anyway, that was cool.
To go back to your original question, from there that pretty much took me through most of the 90s with The Spin Doctors. I’d come to town and I’d do gigs around town. I’d always do jazz gigs and blues gigs and stuff like that when I was in town with people, but for the most part, The Spin Doctors took up pretty much all of my time in the 90s.
Once we got to the end of the 90s, the record sales declined, we weren’t that hot Top 10 band anymore. At that point, our guitar player wasn’t with us anymore. It just felt kind of like it’s a good time to give it a little break for a while and give us the opportunity individually to kind of do some other stuff, which we all wanted to do. So I started to get into–I built a studio in my apartment and I started to get into producing and I started to get into playing on other people’s record and I really wanted to put myself out there as a guy that can do sessions and play with other people as a side man.
That’s something I always–growing up, I was just as interested in being a jazz guy as I was being a studio guy as I was being in a rock band. When I came here, all those three things were kind of–I wanted to do them. I wanted to be prepared for whatever opportunity came to me. I made a decision after being in The Spin Doctors for a while, “This seems pretty cool. I’m going to give this a year or two and see.” I found it’s smart in your career, sometimes you’ve got to make the right decision if you feel like something’s a good opportunity and it’s working for you creatively, which is the most important thing to go for. So I made that decision with The Spin Doctors and obviously it worked out great.
So here we are at the end of the 90s and we’re kind of not really split up, but we’re not active for a while. It was great, but I had to prove myself to a lot of people. I already had a good reputation as a drummer around New York, but I think people thought of me as, “Oh yeah, he’s in that band.” A lot of different things. Like, “He sounds great with them, but maybe he can’t do this.” I had a lot people telling me they thought I’d charge too much money. “He’s in this popular band. We can’t afford him.” All kinds of silly stuff. I can’t tell you how many times I had people coming to me saying, “Man, we spent, like, 10 hours trying to get your snare sound. That sound you got on that record.” And I’m like, “Dude, just call me. It’s right here, you know? You can spend all day.”
I think there’s a lot of things that I had to get out there, like, one, I can play. I’m versatile. Two, I’m not going to charge you a million bucks just because I come from a well-known band. Then it was great. It took a minute, to be honest, but after doing that, all of a sudden you get the reputation, “Okay well this guy can do this.” And here we are down the road where I’m very active as a side man, a session guy, and we got the band back together shortly after that.
Around 2001, we started to get the original guys back together. We started playing some gigs. It’s gotten back to the point where we’ve made three more record and we do probably 30-40 shows a year and it’s just great. The band sounds killer, everybody’s playing as good as ever. I think you saw us out in California, right?
AG: In Phoenix.
AC: Phoenix, right!
AG: You played at the Ostrich Festival here. That’s a weird thing that happens here, but I’d never actually–I grew up in New York and I remember hearing an interview with you on the radio and you said, “I’m really a jazz player playing in a rock band, but I like playing rock music.” Or something like that. And that stuck with me ever since I was a kid.
AC: Oh, that’s cool.
AG: And then to hear, when I got to see you for the first time live last year at the Ostrich Festival, I couldn’t believe how good you guys were. Some other bands were playing and I was like, “Wow.” The Spin Doctors actually kept it together. Some of these other bands that played that’ve been around a long time, they were falling apart. And my friend, who has done some work for some of these bands, he’s like, “Spin Doctors killed it.” You guys were really–you guys were on top of it. It was an awesome show.
AC: Thank you. That’s why I still love doing the band. For one, it’s all four original members. There’s not a lot of bands that still have that. All four of us are lifers. Everybody’s completely dedicated to their craft. People practice, they’re busy, and when we get together, there’s a sound. We don’t fuck around, as you can see. We get up there and we play. We don’t get up there, we’re not just up there trying to get paid. If you come see us, we’re going to do it. If that wasn’t the vibe, I wouldn’t even think about doing it anymore because I see a lot of these bands you’re talking about and it’s one guy left in the band or something.
A bunch of side guys and they’re just going through the motions. There’s a lot of great bands. Listen, I realize that it’s hard to keep a band together. And a lot of them sound great, but you definitely see the bands that are just out there to collect a check. I get it. You gotta make a living, but for me I can’t–sure I gotta make a living too. I’m not going to do something that doesn’t feel–for me it’s gotta feel good and creative and I’m getting satisfaction out of it or I’ll just get depressed. I can’t do that kind of thing.
AG: Yeah, well one way I can tell is having followed you on Instagram for a while, I’ve seen you post this Stick Control book and videos of you using a metronome, hitting your practice pad, and I was like, “Wow that’s really cool. This guy who’s been playing probably 40 years has kept up a practice regimen and that’s been important to him.” Yeah actually, why don’t you…
AC: I got my books right here. You’re absolutely right. I appreciate that. Listen, I started taking lessons again five years ago from Michael Carvin. It’s very important, the older you get and the more that you’re busy, it’s very easy to–you gotta do things so you don’t get into a rut. To me, it’s just a neverending kind of thing. To continue to get better and expand the way I play and how my style–I don’t want to play the same way I played 20 years ago now, or 10 years ago. The cool thing is you’ve got all that stuff. I got all the things I’ve done and all the styles and my own little language, but you don’t want to just stop. Like, “Okay, well that’s what I do.” You want to do all that, but the idea is to keep adding to it. I’ve been really focused on that.
As far as practicing, I always have my trusty Reflexx pad here in my kitchen and I have all my books. A bunch of books I love to go through. This is one that I–I got them dated. This is crazy. I used to do this shit–look at this. This is my old–May ‘83. And I opened these books a while ago and I’m like, “Holy shit.” I don’t even know how I did it back then, but it’s been cool to go back to them and go through these things. I make a point to go through this stuff. Here, I’ll give you a little taste of this one here. This one here. This is great. I’m sitting down so it’ll be kind of weird. [Plays]
Anyway, it’s great. And I love just doing it every day. I try to spend some time out of these books. Concert snare drum reading. And then I got–where’s the other one here? Well of course, my favorite is syncopation. A million ways to do syncopation. I go through that every day. You know, there’s just tons of–where’s my other favorite? Portraits of Rhythm. This is the one that I love. Old rudiment–It’s like a rudimentary. Yeah, so anyway, I try to spend a little bit of time every day on the practice pad doing rudiments and reading. I find that it really helps me to focus. And I forgot–I should put this one on. I love this thing. This little Dr. Beat.
AG: Yeah, how old is that?
AC: Well, I used to have one of these when I was a kid.
AC: They keep breaking and I just keep buying them on eBay. This is probably the tenth one I bought. Whenever one of them breaks, I just go on eBay and I find that they’re out there and I buy them.
AG: Your apartment is sinking again. [Laughs.]
AC: Oh I’m sorry.
AG: It’s okay.
AC: I don’t know. There’s something about it. Maybe it reminded me of when I was 12 practicing, but just for at home practice, I just love it. So I always do a little, even if it’s 10 minutes. I walk past this thing every day. Even if I just sit there and do that. And then I like to do–I try to, depending on my schedule–I have a recording studio and my drums are always set up and if I’m free and there’s not a session in there, then I try to go in and practice. I’ve been really into that lately. And I’ve been getting back into all kinds of crazy books.
There’s a million ways to do syncopation. I recently went back in this book that I did when I was, like, 20 by a guy named Pete Magadini. The original book is called Poly-Cymbal Time and I think now it’s reissued as Polyrhythms for the Drumset, I think. This is an amazing book and it really opened–I’m really into–if you listen to my music or come see my own band live, I do a lot of weird rhythmical stuff. I’ve always been really into that. This was the book that really opened my eyes to that. It’s very much metric modulation, four-way independence, but with doing things with the time.
So I went back through this book and I was like, “Wow.” It took me a minute. You gotta really–it’s fun. When you practice, I like to work on stuff that I can’t do. I always think, “If you sound like shit when you’re practicing, then you’re making progress.” If you’re in there and you’re just sounding great–I mean, anybody can go in… I can play all my best stuff and feel like a million bucks, but I’ll save that for the gig. Know what I mean? That’s what you do when you’re at the gig.
But when you’re practicing, at least for me, I want to work on things that I really can’t do, like from a technical standpoint. Go in there and start something up that you can’t do. Sometimes it takes minute, but then an hour in, all of a sudden you’ve got it. Repetitive motion, you do it do it do it, then you’ve got it. And you can bust it out. It’s all about having these tools for when you’re improvising, they’re there for you.
So that’s kind of my concept of practice. I like to divide it up between the snare drum reading stuff, warm-up, hands, and then do all kinds of different books and technical exercises with four-way independence and time. And then if I have time, I’ll spend some time–if there’s some ideas I’ve been working on, some of my own concepts with different beats or improvisation, but I find that the main thing that I do in the practice is work on technique stuff. Things that have been giving me a hard time or just things I can’t do.
AG: Yeah, so what does an expert professional drummer like you do taking lessons? What are you focused on? For some people, including myself, I see a drummer like you, I listen to your new album, I’m like, “Man this guy’s incredible,” and then I think there’s this kind of mentality that once you’re a professional, you don’t need lessons anymore or something. What are you taking lessons on?
AC: Think about it. You often hear about actors going back and they’re always studying. No matter how old they are, you always hear, “I’m going to an acting class,” or, “I have an acting coach.” Many times you hear it with vocalists, too. “I was working on…” It’s an instrument. Basketball players, professional top-level guys, they’re in practice and there’s coaches. Somehow musicians think they can just get good and then they’re done. That’s okay, like anything.
You get very busy and I think for me I’m so lucky to have so many great teachers my whole youth up until my early 20s. I’ve always taken a lesson here or a lesson there from drummers. About five years ago, I felt like I needed a fresh kick in the ass. I’d been so busy. When you get busy running from gig to gig–I was doing so many gigs. Technique things, I was looking at my hands and like, “Wow, what the hell am I doing?” Not that I really care so much about technique. The main thing to me is I feel like you can do whatever you want to get the sound out of the drums, to express yourself, whatever it takes is fine. But, with that said, when I practice, I do like to focus on my technique. And when I get to the gig, whatever.
When I’m in the studio recording or I’m on a gig making music, I don’t want to think about anything. I don’t want to think about what I practiced, I don’t want to think about my hands. It’s all about making music. That’s the thing. But having that discipline in practice, it carries over. So I was feeling just kind of burnt out and I’m running around, like gig, gig, gig, gig. I felt like I wanted some kind of–it’d be great to take some lessons again. Let’s see what happens. Maybe I can kind of shape up some of this technique stuff, some of these bad habits I’m noticing. Maybe I can get some help to rein them in and let’s just see what happens. I don’t even know. I know how to work on my technique. I know what I need to work on.
I’m good at picking up books. I’m smart about knowing, “This is what I need to work on. This is what I’m gonna do.” So I started asking around New York, tons of people. This is when I was 45. I’m going to be 50 in April. This was about 5 years ago or so. I started asking people, “Hey man, I really want to take lessons. Any suggestions?” And the guy’s name that kept coming up was Michael Carvin.
Michael is a great, great teacher and an amazing drummer too. Incredible. He played with all kinds of people. If you go on YouTube and press in “Michael Carvin with Freddie Hubbard.” There’s this clip that’s just–he’s as good as anybody. He’s just incredible. But he’s also an incredible teacher. His name kept coming up so I was like, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
So actually Dave Sokol, who is the guy who runs this rehearsal studio called Euphoria Studios, which is kind of the best place in town, and Dave, who is a big fan of Carvin’s and had studied with him–he’s the guy who put me in touch with him and I just called him up and said, “Hey man.” He asked me, “What do you want to do? Why are you calling me?” I said, “Well you know, I’m in my mid-40s and I’ve been playing professionally for 25-30 years now and I just want to take things to the next level. I want to keep learning.” So he was like, “Well you’re really smart. That’s a good attitude.”
So we had a short little conversation and we went to the lesson. I met him at his place and I go in there and he’s known for ripping people apart on the first lesson. A lot of people don’t go back. I’ve talked to people that have gone to this guy and they were offended and, “I couldn’t believe the shit he said to me. I’ll never go back again.” But then the other 50% walk away and they’re just like, “This guy was unbelievable. He changed my life. He changed my playing. He changed my life and perspective.”
So he definitely ripped me apart. I kind of expected it, but I wasn’t really sure. He didn’t give a fuck that I was in The Spin Doctors, that I played on this record or that record. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care. At least then he didn’t. So the first lesson, he was just pretty much like, “You’ve got no sound.” He just beat me down. [Laughs.] I took it well and I was like, “Okay cool. Whatever. Great.” And I took it and I went back. And it ended up being this great thing. Now he’s got a lot of respect for me.
Now, if anything, he’s helped give me even more confidence, which is great. You don’t want to go to a teacher and have him tell you you’re the greatest in the world from the get-go. You gotta get somewhere. But he’s been very good and I think he at first started out with some technique stuff. He got me back into going through syncopation and the Chapin book. I went to the Chapin book again because I hadn’t in probably 25 years. You know the book I’m talking about? Jim Chapin book?
AG: No I don’t.
AC: It’s kind of like one of the bibles for drum set. You should get it. You should definitely get it.
AG: I only play drums recreationally, so yeah.
AC: Oh okay. Well there you go. Anybody listening, if you’re a drummer and you want to–it’s one of the books that’s kind of a must to go through. And I went through it really young. So, he got me to go back through some of these things that I hadn’t done in a while. That kind of inspired me to pull out all these old books that I showed you before. But the main thing he did was really help inspire me and help push me to do things that I hadn’t done. He said, “You gotta try to get out of your comfort zone.”
Obviously, we all know you can do this, you can do that, you got this gig, you got that gig. Everything’s cool, but let’s do something where you’re going to get out of your comfort zone. Let’s do something you’re not good at and you don’t feel comfortable with.” He was very encouraging to me. He was like, “You have a lot to offer. Why don’t you start doing some drum clinics?” I’d never done them before.
I always shied away from it because I didn’t want to get in front of a crowd of people and have to talk and have to do that. He really pushed that and at first, I was like, “I don’t know. That’s never been my thing.” But I took his advice and I did one, this was about five years ago. I think the first one I did was at The Drummer’s Collective and I just did another one last week. Since then I’ve done quite a few of them and I love it now. It was really–I think I learned a lot about it because, for one, when you have to sit there and talk about yourself or about music, especially when you have to demonstrate things, you learn a lot yourself.
The main thing, it was just an example of something that wasn’t necessarily in my comfort zone that I did. When you do that kind of stuff, it just opens up all kinds of other possibilities. I had already started making my own records and doing my own band, but I’ve obviously kept that going and done–I play regularly with my group.
I have a couple of different groups that I do on my own. It’s really been great to–for all these years, Spin Doctors and playing on people’s records and playing with other artists like Joan Osborne. All these people, which I love doing, I love it, but to have your own group is kind of the ultimate thing. Something that represents me 100%. It’s my music. It’s my concept. I use players that I want to bring into that, that I work well with.
It’s just been great. It’s just been such a great creative outlet for me to make these records and do these shows. I don’t look at it as–for me, it’s just 100% creative. All the stuff I do is creative, but obviously as a career musician, obviously the reality is you gotta make money. You look in the different things that I have going now, it’s taken me a long time to get to them.
Luckily, 30 years into New York, I’ve got my band Spin Doctors, which are up and running very well these days. I’ve got my side-man stuff, working with people like Joan Osborne, I play with this great artist in Germany named Marius Westernhagen. He’s a big star over there. James Maddock and a lot of the different groups that I play drums for and doing records with people. Having my studio. And then I’ve got my own music. And obviously these other things pay the bills. I usually lose money with my band. [Laughs.] But I don’t care. It’s part of the whole portfolio, as they say.
Some gigs you’re gonna make a lot of money, some gigs you’re gonna make a little money, and some gigs you might lose money. As long as it balances out, but it’s very important to–I think it’s always a bad idea to base all your decisions on money. I’ve always tried to base everything I do on creativity and being fulfilled. Any time I’ve ever taken something that felt like it was just for the money, I think it just never felt right.
One of the things that I’ve kind of–I’ve actually learned to say “no.” Drummers, musicians. We don’t know the word “no,” man. “Hey can you play Tuesday night?” “Okay!” I think for a while, when I first started seeing Carvin, I was just running around, I didn’t want to say “no” to anything. It was cool because we all want to be really busy and I’m really grateful. Sometimes, the more you’re out there, the more you stay busy, the more gigs you get, and that’s part of it. But it’s also important–you can also wake up, which is what happened to me, waking up overloaded. “Oh my God, I’ve got 10 sets of music I’ve gotta learn. I’ve got this gig…” It can get a little distracting.
I’ve realized I’ve learned how to say “no” to stuff. I really try to–I realized “no” is not a bad word. It’s actually healthy. Don’t put yourself in a situation that’s going to run you down and it’s not going to really be creatively fulfilling for you. You don’t want to be out there playing stuff that’s not good, either, because people see that.
AG: So speaking of that, you have so much great music out there available for free on YouTube. Your performances at the Rockwood Music Hall with Teddy [Kumpel] and I’ve seen gigs with Jojo Mayer. You’ve got all-star lineups sometimes playing with you and your bands. I was wondering if you could get into some of that and how it’s led into your new album, Sculptures.
AC: Yeah, absolutely. Basically, I started making my own records in 2006. My first record is a record called Catskills Cry. It’s me, I wrote all the music on guitar–a lot of what I write is on guitar. And I got Bill Dillon, who’s an amazing guitar player from Canada, who I met–he played on a lot of the Robbie Robertson records. He’s just got this vibe. I did a record with him in the late 90s with Marc Cohn and I was like, “Who’s this guitar player?” I was like, “This guy’s unbelievable.” He just stuck with me, so about–whatever it was, 8-10 years later when I got around to doing my record, I was like, “I gotta call this guy.”
So I called up Bill and I was like, “Hey man, I want you to do this record with me.” So we worked it out. And then I had an idea to use Tony Levin and Bill knew Tony and inside of about an hour, we had the whole thing. It was done. We had it booked. Bill hooked me up with an engineer in Woodstock named Roman Klun, who’s now my partner in my studio. We share a recording studio.
So it all led back to that record. And it’s a great record. I’ll always really love that record. It was the first one I did. We never did any gigs because everyone lived in different places. It was just a really cool vibey record. I owe a lot to those guys. It’s just great.
That was the beginning. And then a few years later when I decided to make my second record, which is called Beautiful Mistake, I’d always loved Teddy Kumpel. You know Teddy. Incredible musician, guitar player. We’ve done a lot of playing together over the years. I knew right away, “This is the guy I want to have play guitar on my record.” I also knew that I wanted to use Richard Hammond on bass, who’s another amazing bass player. Really good friend of mine.
AG: He is incredible. I listened to–it was a live album. I think it was a trio. You, Teddy, and Richard. I listened to that yesterday or the day before. I couldn’t believe Richard’s playing. He is such a melodic player and he fills in so much. I couldn’t believe it was a trio at times as I was listening to it. And Teddy is on another planet.
AC: Teddy’s incredible. Yeah, Rich, we’ve done so much together. We both played in Joan Osborne’s band for 11-12 years together. We’ve done a ton of gigs. You’re lucky when you meet–every drummer and bass player, you always have a couple of bass players you just really gel with. Richard is just one of those guys. We get together, we don’t have to say a word to each other. It just happens, no matter what kind of music we’re playing.
So I knew that I wanted to get Teddy and Richard together. I made demos. I wrote most of the songs on guitar, so I made demos and I sent it to those guys and I was like, “Listen, I want to make this record. Here’s the music.” We didn’t even rehearse. I was like, “Learn the music. This is the basic structure. These are the parts.”
I felt kind of bad because, particularly on those record, it’s very guitar-oriented and there’s very specific parts on the melody sections, the heads of the songs, they’re very specific. And then there’s parts of the songs that are more open. I can’t thank Teddy enough for putting up with me. He did such an amazing job of learning the stuff that I wrote and making it his own, but totally respecting the parts. It was amazing. So, I told those guys, “Look we’re not going to rehearse. We’re doing two days, but you gotta do your homework. I want to come in–We’ve all played together, but this is a new band. I want it to sound like we’ve been playing together for five years.”
Those guys did their homework. We just had a great session. Some really magical moments happened off the floor. When you get in the studio, you have an idea of what something is going to be. Like the song “Past, Present, & Future,” which is one of my favorite songs, it’s a song we play live a lot–when we got in there and started playing it, I had this kind of simple bass line and Rich came up with this thing and it just turned into this amazing moment. Those are the things that make records so great. You come in prepared and you have an idea, but then something special happens off the cuff and then you grab it and work with it.
Anyway, so after that record, that was the first time I started doing gigs. We did a record release show. All of a sudden, it was like, “Wow, I’ve got a band. We’ve got songs.” So we just started, ever since then. That trio has been playing maybe once a month or so around New York and we go out of town every once in a while. It’s just turned into a great band. We did another record a few years later called Blues for Use. And then we did that live record that you were talking about.
AG: That waltz track is hysterical, man. That lead melody, I’m like, “Where did that melody come from?”
AC: Catskills Last Waltz.
AC: Actually, I used to have a house in the Catskills. I sold it. I was sitting on the couch right before I was getting rid of it. I was literally about to leave, all my stuff was packed up and I was getting ready to get in my car and say goodbye to the house and I had my dobro there and I just wrote that little melody. So I called it Catskills Last Waltz. It’s kind of like a [Thelonius] Monk vibe. I think it was kind of a Thelonius Monk-type melody.
AG: I could see that. Yeah. Yeah, a lot of kind of close notes and very chromatic but fun. I just thought it was a really cool track.
AC: Thank you. So, from that, I also did a jazz quintet record with Teddy and Rich, Keith Loftis who’s an incredible sax player, and then Barney McAll, a bass and piano player. We did a record live up in Smoke Jazz Club and we put that out. And then I kept all these groups going then I started doing this band called the Air-Conditioned Gypsies, which is basically just a collective of musicians.
It’s all improvisation and I basically–for a while, I was doing every three months, now I’m maybe doing it twice a year or so. I just call up different musicians that I want to play with to play. I think about it, “Who’s gonna play well together?” And it’s just been great. I’ve done some great ones. I’ve done a couple double drums with Jojo Mayer. They’re on YouTube, like you said. A couple with Mark Guiliana, both on YouTube. Those are both–those guys are both incredible, innovative drummers who’ve influence me a lot. So that was great. Vernon Reid’s done a bunch of ‘em. Gerry Leonard did some. Oli Rockberger, John Davis, Richard Hammond, Teddy–it’s a long list of great musicians that have been involved in it.
Anyway, so when it came to thinking about making a new record, which is the record that’s coming out next Friday, I believe. March 16. It’s called Sculptures. I wanted to do something a little different. I had made two records with Teddy and Rich that were kind of based on my acoustic guitar compositions. Me sitting around and I write a lot of stuff on acoustic and that’s where those songs came from. I wanted to do something different. I’ve been experimenting with all the improv stuff, which I’ve always been into. Getting into a little more of the electronic vibe, which brings me to Leon Greunbaum. Leon’s the guy that I always use on the Air-Conditioned Gypsies. I always use different people, but Leon is in every gig. So far, he’s been available for every one I’ve asked him to do.
AG: He’s the guy who plays that invented instrument, the Samchillian.
AC: Exactly. He plays the Samchillian. You can look it up. It’s this crazy thing that he invented and I just love him. He’s just an incredible musician. He’s so creative and he comes up with such great ideas and sonic sounds. So I really wanted to bring him into this new record. Originally, the idea was: “Let me get together with Leon in my studio. We’ll just do some short improvisations.” So the record started with just the two of us in my studio.
I didn’t want to do this jam for two hours and then cut and paste. I was like, “I want to come up with some idea before we start. A little concept, even if it was just a beat or an idea, and we’d do these things. I didn’t want any of them to be more than three minutes. Maybe four minutes. Some of them were even one or two minutes. We did a whole bunch of that and that was the start of it. And then I had a couple of songs that I had written on acoustic guitar, but they’re a little different and I recorded those.
I played the guitar on those, the acoustic guitar, which I’d never–well I’d always played a little bit of guitar on my records, but not much. So that was kind of one section of it. Then I’m sitting here looking at this, I have these kind of cool improvs–and the improvs were great. Usually it would start off with just me and Leon and then sometimes Leon would overdub something on top of it. Ultimately, I had a few other people come in and play some stuff, but it was just based on these improvs. We had the improv section, we had these couple of acoustic guitar-based songs that I played, and then we had this part three, which I hadn’t really figured out yet.
My friend Oli Rockberger, who’s an amazing piano player, he’s just phenomenal. He lived in New York for a long time. He’s from London and he moved back to London about four or five years ago. He was in a band called Mister Berrington with Zach Danziger and Owen [Biddle].
I used to play with them in this band with this great songwriter named James Maddock, who I used to play with a lot. He’s just always been one of my favorite musicians. He was like, “Hey I’m going to be in town, man. We should hang.” I was like, “Shit. I gotta book a session around Oli’s coming to town.”
So, I confirmed Oli and then I confirmed Leon and then I wanted to get–I played a few times with John Davis, who plays in Jojo Mayer’s Nerve. He lives right across the street. He can probably see me. I really hit it off with him. He filled in for Rich a couple times on our trio gig, which is now actually a quartet because Leon plays. He did an Air-Conditioned Gypsies gig. Where the music was going for this record, I felt like, “Yeah, this will be cool. I want to do something different.”
So me and Oli and John and Leon got together one afternoon and I’m kind of thinking, “Shit, what am I going to do? Shit this is happening in two days.” I tend to work good under pressure. I didn’t want to–I knew I wanted it to be improv based, but I didn’t want it to just be like, “Hey kids, let’s go.” So at the 11th hour, I wrote some ideas. I wrote a couple songs. I came in there with these loose kind of song ideas. About six or seven of them. And we did them and it was just a really great session. It just clicked really well.
I think out of those seven, maybe four of them went on the record. Between those three different things, that’s how I came up with this record. And then I should mention, too, that there’s a guitar player in town called Grey McMurray who’s just incredible. He’s just this totally unique, very ambient style of playing.
And so I wanted Gray to come in and just play over everything. So Gray came in and–actually, this was before the session with Oli and John and Leon. So he came in and played on all the other stuff and he just did such a great job. He added such a cool, vibey element to it. After that last session, I had him come in and play on that stuff. So it ended up being this really cool kind of vibey sort of experimental, sort of electronic-y, still really organic record. I was psyched about it. I did this really great video for the song Sculptures. You can see it on YouTube, just click in Aaron Comess Sculptures. It’ll come right up. Check it out. These really great guys did it.
AG: Yeah it’s beautifully done.
AG: Awesome video.
AC: Thank you. I’m really, really psyched. I feel really good about it. I really wanted to do something just really–a nice piece of art to go with it. That one song is kind of a special moment for me and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. That song Sculptures was just an improv. It was one of those days Leon came in. It really was based on this rhythm. I kind of had this triplet-y rhythm idea inside of this groove and really all I said to Leon was, “I just want you to do some ambient weird stuff. I kind of have this rhythmic motif that’s going to kind of appear throughout it and let’s just see what happens.” We just did one–it’s basically just as you hear.
There’s really no editing on all the record. Everything you hear is done. And that song in particular, it just had such a beautiful shape to it. When I go back and listen to it, I’m like, “Wow this is really cool. It has a shape.” So we decided–Leon is doing all this stuff, but there’s this harmonic element, chords, so I suggested, “Why don’t you play”–he gets these great bass sounds on the Samchillian. Probably about half the record is John on bass. The other half is Samchillian bass, which is real subsonic sounding. It’s like a Moog or something. I said, “Can you figure out the harmony you did and just add bass to it?” So he did that and that was pretty much it.
AG: I listened to the record, like I said, five or six times yesterday as I was working. I didn’t have any meetings. I’m working from home. It’s this kind of record–Daniel Lanois has an album called Shine and he designed it so it could just stay on repeat. I felt like this album is really interesting to listen to, it’s short enough that you want to listen to it again right after it’s over, and none of the songs are throwaways. You know? Everything is really good and, like you said, there’s three different vibes going on, but there’s a good mix or a blend of it as you listen through the whole thing. So I really love it. I think it’s a very creative album. Your drumming–
AC: I appreciate it.
AG: Your drumming is really creative and I really enjoyed that. And the songs are interesting. So, great job on that.
AC: I appreciate it. Thank you. So, it’s funny because Daniel Lanois is a really big influence on me, particularly on my solo stuff. I love all of his instrumental records. I listen to them all a lot. Like you said, the thing that I like about his records–I really like music that is really very much musical and you can listen to, but also it’s not too abrasive. You can almost have it on in the background as well. That’s what I love about all of Daniel Lanois’ records. It’s this very moody vibey thing. But there’s so much music going on.
That’s really exactly what I personally tried to go on this. I purposely made it short. The bottom line is I probably recorded about two hours of music and I really kept taking stuff out, taking stuff out, and at one point the record was 12 songs. I’m trying to figure out the right order. “Ah, it doesn’t make sense, but if I pull that song out, all of a sudden it makes sense.” It’s hard to let go of songs, but after doing records for so long with so many people in my home, I take it really seriously, even though I know a lot of people don’t listen to records all the way through, I do and I make records that are meant to be listened to all the way through.
I don’t like long records. I think 37 minutes–like you said, I don’t want to hear–you want everything to be strong. That’s the idea, you know? So, I appreciate it. One last thing, going back to the song Sculptures. The final element of that is that Grey came in, Grey McMurray came in and played guitar on it. And it was really pretty amazing. This was just improv that me and Leon did. Harmonically, it’s not crazy, but it’s definitely moving around in some weird ways in weird places and Gray just–I couldn’t believe it. He just somehow tuned into it. He played the most beautiful stuff. It was like he was there and I remember–it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in the studio, how he was able to just tune into the thing. He’s really an amazing guitar player. He added a lot to the vibe of the record, for sure.
AG: That’s cool.
AG: So if people want to find out more about you and your music, where’s the best place to find that information?
AC: You can go on my website, which is AaronComess.com. I recently simplified it, but it’s got most of the records I’ve played on. That’s about it. It’s got the video up there. Links to my records. The new record is coming out March 16. It’s available anywhere. Easiest place to get it is probably iTunes or come to my gig and I’ll give you a CD. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. All that stuff.
AG: All right, cool.
AC: And one last thing! I’m doing a record release. A 50th birthday bash at the Blue Note in New York on April 23. It’s going to be my band with Teddy, Rich, Oli Rockberger’s flying in from London for it, Keith Loftis, the sax player, he’s gonna be there. We’re gonna do all my stuff as well as two really special guests. James Maddock, who’s an incredible songwriter I’ve worked with for years. He’s gonna do a few songs as well as Joan Osborne, who’s also going to be a special guest on a couple songs. It’s gonna be an amazing night. If you’re in New York, get your tickets and come out.
AG: All right, cool! Happy 50th birthday.
AC: Not yet. Not yet.
AG: Almost! And congratulations on 30 years of the Spin Doctors.
AC: Thank you very much.
AG: The new record is really awesome. I’m looking forward to releasing this and telling people about it.
AC: I appreciate it.