The quintessential New Yorker isn’t always from New York. And the quintessential jazzman does not always play jazz. “I’m dealing with some allergies,” Jojo Mayer says after a brief coughing fit. “Smoking helps,” he adds before lighting up the first of many cigarettes during our conversation. Case and point.
“I was born in Switzerland. My parents are Swiss but they were not living in Switzerland when I was born. They went to Switzerland to give birth but lived in Italy at the time. My dad is a musician, a jazz musician.” From birth Mayer was acclimated to a life of music, on and off the road. “My first two years were in Europe traveling with my family. My preschool years I spent in the far east, in Hong Kong. My dad was the musical director of the Hilton, which had a kick ass club.”
The family made a home in Switzerland for Mayer’s school years where he continued the family’s musical lineage behind the kit. “When I was around eighteen I started to play outside of Switzerland. I got my first major exposure jazz gigs. I got to play with people like Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone.
“I knew that music really well because I grew up in that world. My dad was a jazz bassist and played that music. The Ray Brown school, Oscar Peterson, pre-be-bop music of the 40’s and 50’s. But I grew up listening to The Beatles and The Stones, James Brown and Hendrix, all the while doing jazz gigs as a pimple faced teenager. I knew my dad’s music but I was into other things.”
Eventually pulls in other directions would lead Mayer out of Switzerland. “I traveled around Europe. Tried Paris, went to Germany. At some point I said, ‘I can flip a coin and go to London or New York.’ So I gave New York a shot.” There were challenges, but Mayer had something of an upper hand making the adjustment.
“I was already backing up American players when they came to Europe, but it’s New York and nobody is waiting on you to fucking arrive and say ‘I’m here!’” Ironically, in some ways, that is how it was for Mayer once he touched down in the Big Apple. “I lived in alphabet city (the Lower East Side), and took a stroll, high on the city, just like everyone does when they come for the first time. I walked around Tompkins Square Park. John Zorn lived in that neighborhood, and I bumped into him. He’s like ‘what are you doing here?’ I tell him I just moved and he gave me a gig the same night at the old Knitting Factory.”
Despite the change of scenery though, after a few months Mayer still hadn’t found the scene and inspiration he was seeking. “I got my feet wet and tried to play every gig that I could. But I got a bit disenchanted with the scene. I realized that I came to New York forty years too late.” Jazz had long moved away from the idealized version he had been raised on. “Basically, with everything becoming textbook academia, I felt the action was not with jazz anymore.”
It would take looking outside of jazz for Mayer to find his niche. “There was this organization called the Black Rock Coalition. I was roommates with David Fiuczynski for a while and we had a band called The Screaming Headless Torsos.” The Torsos gave Mayer his first glimpses of fame, but also served to drive home the point he had come to with jazz. “I realized the beat vocabulary was exhausted. By fusion drummers or rock drummers or reggae drummers. I started to understand that the new platform for beat culture was going to be electronic.
“Drum and Bass really kicked open the door for me. Being European I could associate with it. It’s a little bit different. In America there is a certain export only attitude. ‘We invented jazz, and R&B and blues. We don’t need to learn anything from nobody.’” He laughs at the joke because there is truth in it. “America is great. All the music. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. But no one’s really looking for the new. And I mean really new.” Through Drum and Bass for Mayer found the means to begin chartting out that new path.
“I was on the road with Me’Shell N’degeocello in Europe, I think it was Glastonbury. I had been acquainted with stuff like drum and bass before, but that was the first time I saw a party where a couple hundred people were dancing to beats I did *not* associate with dance music. It completely shattered the notion that something had to be simple in order to get over, because those beats sounded like Tony Williams’ Lifetime.” Without knowing the lineages, drum and bass was calling up the history of the kit drum, reshaped through break beats. “That was a key experience in my life. All my heroes, all these amazing drummers that I learned from were right there in the electronic music.
“I came back to New York, left The Screaming Headless Torsos and started this experimental platform at a small club on Second Avenue called Izzy Bar. 80 people capacity. We had forty people the first night, which was more than they usually had on a Wednesday night. Word got out and the next week we had 50 people. The week after we had 68. Three months later we had 300 people in there. After four months there were 200 people downstairs and 200 people upstairs waiting to get in.”
He built the scene from scratch while making the music at the heart of it, a music which was still in the process of being defined. “In the beginning we didn’t really sound very good. This was like 1997.” Despite this, the scene garnered the attention of The New York Times and The Village Voice who both ran features. “It was more lifestyle magazines that came. The music scene completely bypassed it. Our audience was fashion students, art students, design students, some models and movie people. A very eclectic bunch and a great party.”
Soon however, the party outgrew the venue. More space, bigger audience and a name pushed the platform forward. “When I started Prohibited Beatz, I didn’t have a name for the band. At some point the New York Times said, ‘what’s the name of the band’ and I just pulled out of my ass ‘oh it’s called Nerve.’ It stuck.“ The Prohibited Beats weekly event became a hub for the drum and bass community in New York, and true to his call, live musicians were at the center of it.
It lasted for just over two years strong, before cabaret licenses and club politics landed him without a venue. After a short hiatus the event was supposed to come back in October 2001. Unfortunately September 11th changed that. “I went into cultural exile. I always pay taxes here. I live here, but I spent most of my time outside of America. Then I became more known, all of a sudden I found myself on the road eight months out of the year. I did that for years. Now I want to focus on what I really want to do. I think the climate’s better. There’s a whole new generation of people, and the music is more challenging.”
It’s a whole new sound and yet it seems to fit with what Mayer has been doing with Nerve from the beginning. “Some of the stuff that I recorded on our first record, the stuff that was drum and bass sounds pretty dated now, but the other stuff still sounds fresh. We didn’t know it, nobody else knew it but listen to the record now… we did it seven years ago, those things still sound good. It’s becoming even more interesting now. I’m not a psychic but I think we’re at it.”
It goes back to what he saw in the music in the first place, which was a resurgence of the sounds of the late great jazz drummers. What he seeks to do with Nerve is ensure the performance accompanies that sound, particularly the drum. “This instrument, the trap set, this is the instrument that jazz brought out. The configuration started in New Orleans with people like Sanford Moeller, George Lawrence Stone, those were the master drummers. The ones that knew what was up. From there it went into the jazz culture. That’s why the jazz guys had chops.” Mayer believes he can bring those chops to electronic music. “The technique is not that much different as far as the mechanics go. However what is different is that electronic music has a certain quality or density to it.”
The quality is as much about sonics as it is about modifying the technique. “I had to take time to make something that sounds more like a hand clap, or something that sounds more precise and timed, something that can get the white noise sounds. Then studying all the different loops and the balance – how loud is the hi hat in comparison to the bass or the snare drums. Something like the funky drummer loop, or any classic break beat, it’s not about the notes, it’s more about that bass drum sound, or the compression. Learning about those things I became more aware of the textural techniques. All the old jazz guys they had that but with the rise of amplified music and amplifying drums, the way the studio stuff worked in the 70’s and the 80’s, it became more about the microphone.”
He is critical of technology as he believes it should be an aid not a crutch. “When you talk about technique it’s not just bringing the stick down to the surface. Technology is the means to do something but sometimes you have to wait, until technology catches up.” Toward this end Mayer realized he had to play a role in pushing technology forward.
“I designed a new pedal. It’s a bass floor pedal which goes back to a deviation, from fifty years ago when folk knew how to make a pedal. They weren’t so concerned with marketing and copyrights, it was drummers that said, ‘I need this, I need this.’
“They played with twenty six inch bass drums with two drum heads, not amplified as they had an acoustic bass standing next to them. They had to play quiet. Music became louder, the bass drum became smaller. They took the front head off and muffled it. Drummers had to over play into the bass drum. You couldn’t do all of the fancy tap dance stuff anymore. If you do that on a pedal like they sell today, you have no leverage. The main difference with my pedal is that it is perfectly balanced.”
The pedal will arrive in conjunction with the second volume of Mayer’s Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer DVD’s, which focuses on foot techniques. “The foot techniques were supposed to be a part of the first video but I played on custom built pedals that I made myself. I thought, ‘well that’s kind of stupid, to show something and limit their access to it.’
“The pedal is my doctrine really, same with the videos. I want to give drummers insights I received from the older guys, because I was fortunate enough to learn from some really bad cats. Jim Chapin who just passed away. Freddy Gruber, Joe Morello. I was fortunate enough to learn from them and they were around when jazz was made.”
It’s this legacy that Mayer brings with him to the stage. “When you play those beats live, people kind of gag. They are like, ‘Wow! I know this music but I’ve never seen someone accomplish it physically. Sweat is actually coming at me.’ We had the formula down ten years ago. But how to make a record with it? Once you put it on a record nobody cares if it was programmed or not. Then it’s the distance between zero and one you know? Can you feel it? Does this sound like a band or does this sound like a guy?”
Keying in on a process for capturing their performance was a critical hurdle for Nerve. “We stopped making records like people usually do records. We don’t go into micro-editing. They are jamming sessions where we take the good parts, make a structure and then we go and play it again. We may layer a few things on top, but pretty much what you hear on the drums was all played in real time. Same goes for the bass. With the keyboards we’ll allow ourselves two or three passes to make it come together. But performances, that’s where we’re at now.
“There’s one big difference between electronic music and live music,” he hesitates. “I don’t want to say live music, I want to say music that is created in real time. The way electronic music is made is premeditated. It’s much more related to making a painting, you finish it and then you put it up. That’s completely different from having four musicians playing together and reacting to the idiosyncrasies, where it really matters if this guy had three hours of sleep or feels inspired or not. I’m talking about exposing people to the event, the phenomenon of playing music with intuition. In a broad respect it’s jazz. It’s just the aesthetically different today. Technology is different. But I don’t want to paint pictures, I want to play.
“If I can play something the audience knows and can react to, because people react to what they know, that opens a door for building the arc to bring the knowledge from Buddy Rich or Tony Williams back into the new world. How to play drums? I learned from these guys, but DJ culture has brought a lot to the table and you can’t turn time back.
“I’m an older than the people that I’m drawing my inspiration from. I’m trying to be a bridge, in the drum community. Electronic music, Tony Williams. What’s in the middle? My younger friends share stuff like Flying Lotus or Free the Robots and I’m like whoa. Then I show them stuff like Weather Report and it blows their mind. Maybe someone will have an appreciation for what Monk did.
“We’re jazz. I’m just a Swiss peasant, but I grew up with that music, I heard it in my moms womb. To me jazz is a very authentic American art form. That’s the reason why I’m here. Jazz. It’s a music that is improvised, created on the spot. It is spontaneous expression, and it has a certain beat that makes you want to snap your fingers and feel good. To me the rhythm, the beat and improvisation – that’s jazz.”