Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Townhouse Interviews: Marko Djordjevic



Marko Djordjevic is one of my drum heroes.  He's a wonderful and unique talent in contemporary music.  He's superbly innovative and has an understanding of the drums that not many do.  If you've ever wanted to hear what the drums would sound like if they were played with the grace and nuance of a pianist, or violinist, or any other type of instrument that doesn't involve hitting it with sticks, and with the musical mind of a composer, Marko is your guy.  But he's also a drummer's drummer.  His fills and grooves are mind blowing, and the ease with which it looks like he executes them is even more so.  It's a great honor that he agreed to stop by the Townhouse to answer some questions. Enjoy!


Evan Jones First thing's first, let's get to know you.  Who the heck are you?

Marko Djordjevic This is a really good question.  Who the heck am I, actually?  My brain tells me I can't know the answer to this.  If you really think about it, in this life we are profoundly deprived of the ability to know anything down to its core - children are very wise to keep asking "but why?" eventually making you surrender and say "because that's just the way it is".  The honest answer should be that "neither daddy or mommy or anyone else on this planet has a f8@^@%# clue!"  To contemplate one's own existence is to be engaged in a game of endless layers.  The best we can hope for is to "know" things on a particular level (or levels), until a moment of enlightenment, if it should ever arrive, in which we are given the whole picture.  And it is very easy to get lost attempting to find out what is at the core of "EVERYTHING" or even at the core of any one thing - as tempting a pursuit as it may be.  By the way, many years ago people gave this pursuit a name - philosophy.  The fact it is still around points to man's meager luck in getting to the bottom of it all  :-).  So, this is one way to answer your question...

Luckily, as brainy as I ever care to get, my heart says I am defined by love - hence I am a musician, a husband, a father, a son a brother, a friend...

EJ What's the last thing you listened to?

MD Some garage band files of new music I have been working on.  I compose in spurts.  After about a year of near inactivity, I am now working on five pieces of music simultaneously...

EJ That's exciting, can't wait to hear them!  Gotta get the gear talk in.  Sorry those of you who aren't interested in that sort of thing.  What's your current setup?

MD I'll keep it short and to the point then :-). I play DDRUM, Zildjian, Evans G1 heads, and Vic Firth AJ1 sticks.  Usually an 18" bass drum and a variety of cymbal and tom configuration, depending on the situation.  I am VERY happy with the quality of the instruments I have at my disposal and very grateful for the relationships I have with the aforementioned companies!

EJ Ok, down to business.  I think it's safe to say that you've achieved a level of mastery on the drum kit that few people have. But there is absolutely no question that that mastery has been the result of countless hours behind the drum kit.  What has your development as a drummer been like?  A steady rise?  A path of hills and plateaus?  You know the old metaphors.

MD Needless to say, your observation is quite flattering and I really appreciate it. Without being falsely modest, I feel like it is not far from the truth.  I have most certainly put in the hours.  My development has been a constant story of working on something and then having to revisit, revise and refine it.  The other aspect of it is the constant need I have to look for ways of expressing myself which are unique or at least come with "a road less traveled" tag attached :-).

EJ Can you recall some breakthrough moments where maybe you said to yourself, "oh snap, I finally nailed it!"?

MD This would take days to answer, as I have these moments all the time, but they are not actually of the " I've nailed it" variety 99.9% of the time.  More like "I think I get this a bit more then I did a minute ago".  It is really tough to ever say "I've finally nailed" anything.  That is what the constant pursuit is all about...

EJ When you realized you loved the drums, I think it would be safe to assume there was also a time when you tried to devour every bit of drumming and learn about every drummer you could, no? Are there some particular drummer influences you can remember that were important to your own formation as a drummer?

MD Absolutely!  But this list of names could easily eat up your storage allotment for this blog :-)... The easiest answer I can give is that I was influenced (and still am) by things I did not care for just as much as those things I enjoy.  I believe every single person I ever heard play has left me with a bit of relevant information which I then used for the purpose of bettering myself.

EJ I first learned about you on some of Jonah Smith's albums (who is worth checking out as well).  This is going back a few years.  But I immediately recognized something special about the drums on those records even then.  Whoever that drummer was didn't take the easy way out.  I expected pleasant grooves with some predictable fills here and there, but the more I listened, the more my expectations were shattered.  As it turned out, that drummer was you, and here we are, and it all makes sense now. So I'm wondering on a purely musical level how you approached that project, to come up with the sort of intricacy and nuance that you did?  Probably only drummers or diehard Marko Djordjevic fans might fully appreciate what you did on those songs, but it added so much.

MD Well, Jonah's music changed very much in the course of four albums I recorded on between 2000 and 2007.  Music on the first album lent itself to all kinds of "drum stuff" which actually fit the songs. Towards the end of my time in the band Jonah actually wrote music which required drums to play a very different role from that on the first album.  If anyone cares to check it out, the perfect contrast would be lead off songs from the first and the third album (song names are "Industry Rule" and "Little Black Angels" respectively)...BTW, there is no value judgement attached to this comparison on my end - I think both songs are really good.  Good music always comes first - what the instruments do to make it come to life is very important, but secondary to the initial idea. Without the composition itself the performers would have nothing to do, right?

EJ Can't argue with that.  And related to that, you once mentioned in context to playing with Jonah that playing as a studio and tour musician for someone else was great, as long as the music was worthwhile.  I thought that was interesting and speaks to something that might be hard for those outside of creative fields to understand sometimes.  I'm interested in your philosophy when it comes to taking gigs like that?  It's obviously nice to have a steady gig (and I think artists in any field are always grateful for them), but I think there's a level of artistic integrity that you also have to be mindful of if you want to be taken seriously.  Would you agree?  If the music wasn't benefiting you as a musician, would you be hesitant to take the gig?

MD I still stand by that comment about the music being worthwhile.  I have had the good fortune of playing music I considered worthwhile for a large portion of my career.  This doesn't mean I never take a gig I consider to be outside of my interest musically - I have certainly taken some gigs where the primary motivation was money or friendship - but I have not, in all my time as a musician, been on the road or been a part of a band that played music I did not enjoy listening to and playing or a permanent member of a wedding/slash corporate band.  At the risk of sounding quite opinionated (and luckily the chances me getting the call are slim to none,  I figure there is no harm in positing a little theory  :-)), I wonder what would happen if I got a call from Lady Gaga.  I remember being in a cab in Barcelona after a gig and hearing her song "Alejandro" for the first time.  My opinion of the musical and intellectual validity of the aforementioned "entity of questionable content" (I refuse to call it music :-), was/is VERY low!  In fact, the idiotic hook  "Ale - Ale - Ale - Ale Alejandro..." made me think how we have stooped down to new lows as a species!  On the other hand, I am sure that the musicians accompanying Lady Gaga get handsomely compensated for their "trouble".  So, if the call came, what would I do?!  I really wish I could tell you that I would take the high road and refuse to be involved with something I consider so musically unworthy.  But I would be a dishonest SOB if I told you I would not consider the material aspect or the musical networking opportunities this kind of a gig would bring along.

EJ I can't say I'd blame you for that.  It's an interesting position artists find themselves in in those cases.  At any rate, this may seem like an odd question, but I think it's an important one.  When I think about the way you play drums, fluidity is a word that comes to mind.  I think that's something that's uniquely yours.  You play the drums,  as I mentioned in the introduction, as if you were manipulating the strings of a guitar, or the keys of a piano.  I'm sure much of that must come from your early influences, that Western ears such as mine might not be too accustomed to hearing. But I know there's more to it than that. You approach the drums as a melodic set of instruments (borrowed some of your own words there), rather than as percussion.  There's just something different about it all.  So how does Marko Djordjevic perceive the drum kit?

MD To me a drum kit is a playground of infinite musical possibilities, limited only by my emotions, creativity, intellect and ability. The flow is the most difficult thing to achieve, and I still work my ass off to get closer to the ideal... By the way, I don't think I am nearly as naturally gifted as some other musicians when it comes to this aspect, hence the amount of effort I have to put into making things flow is copious to say the least. The fact you recognize fluidity as a strong suit in my playing speaks to the fact that the time put in is paying off and I couldn't be happier about this!!! As far as drums being a melodic instrument, I  do think drums and cymbals have as much melodic and motivic development potential as any other instrument you can think of and I try my best to bring this aspect of the instrument to the forefront where appropriate.  And when I talk about melodic, I am referring to the concept of "untempered" melodicism - not the idea of "exact" pitches, but nevertheless melodies which make the drums sound "like more than just drums".  Ari Hoenig would be an example of a drummer who actually employs the concept of "tempered" pitches by tuning and manipulating the toms and the snare drum (with the snares off) to great effect, playing things like be bop melodies.

EJ As it relates to your playing, and not the theory of drums, how do you tend to approach the drums musically?  Conceptually?  Emotionally?

MD I guess a part of the answer is contained in my previous one.  But it has only been in the last five years or so that I've begun recognizing the totality of who I am as a human being turn up in my drumming (and composing) as a conglomerated mode of idiosyncratic expression.  The way I think, the things I know, the imprint of the life I have led, the emotions and experiences.  The ability to "tour" through all of these "landscapes" while playing has made my "output" reach new depths, and I feel like I just began scratching the surface on this.  So, my direct answer to your question would be All Of The Above, and then some :-).

EJ I believe you once said you see drums and goalkeeping as one in the same?  That's interesting. Care to expand on that?

MD :-) Yes, indeed. To begin with, it is the unique position and perspective.  Any good drummer/goalkeeper should have the best insight into the functioning of a band/team. Second, there are no good bands/teams without a solid, reliable drummer/goalkeeper (there are some notable exceptions, like the Brazil 1982 WC winning team - their keeper Valdir Peres was a laugh - this is an ABSOLUTE impossibility in today's game :-)).  Further more, a mistake made by a drummer/goalkeeper is the most obvious and potentially fatal to the efforts of the entire group/team. Also the ability to make quick decisions and lucid reactions, excellent hand and foot coordination, sharp reflexes, which are all indispensable and have to be kept at a high level.  Finally, a great sense of rhythm, timing, dynamics and an ability to improvise are traits of any drummer/goalkeeper worth his salt.  So, as you can see, though my saying that they are "one and the same" is a bit tongue in cheek, there are many, many common traits between these two positions.

EJ Now it's one thing to hear you play on a recording, but the magic really happens when watching you play (I hope to see you live sometime because I'm sure it's much better even than seeing you on a Youtube video).  How much fun do you have playing the drums?  I rarely have seen you play without a huge smile.

MD Well, to me there is absolutely nothing more exhilarating than to find myself in the middle of really happening music!!!  A smile is certainly a reflection of my state at those moments, but I have seen some photos of myself when an entirely different facial expression is apparent :-).  I guess it all depends on the moment.  As for live and in person vs. video?  Well, I am torn on that, because I have had some sublime listening moments while checking out magnificent performances on screen (The Coltrane Quartet, Ani Di Franco, Peter Gabriel's Secret World tour, Keith Jarret with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, Don Cherry with James Blood Ulmer and Rashied Ali).  I guess, being a musician myself, I am well aware of the ins and outs surrounding a performance - way back when, before I even knew I would become a musician, there used to be a lot more mystery in the mix: I used to wonder where do they come from when they walk on to the stage?!  Where do they go after they have finished?! As a kid I used to wonder if  the musicians and other performers were real human beings like me, or if they were somehow different.  The funniest thing is that once I decided musicians, actors, athletes, etc. were actually real people (I was about 5 or 6), I continued to think that the "human looking" characters in commercials did not  really exist, that they were some sort of a hyper realistic animation and not actual human beings. Looking back, it seems I was absolutely right about that one - even somewhat prophetic, if I may say so :-).

EJ Haha, you were definitely right about that one!  Now let's talk a little bit about your composing. Your group Sveti, which is sort of your pet project, is an outlet for both your drumming and composing.  Do you approach composing music differently than you do drum playing, or is it all part of the same thing for you?

MD The one big difference is that I am a "highly schooled" drummer and a "self taught composer". The first time I ever sat behind a real drum set was in my first lesson.  Between then and now I have studied with many different people and have devoured a great deal of information pertaining to drumming - now I find myself on the other end having my own voice on the instrument.  As for composition, I have never taken a formal class on the subject except for a couple of 90 minutes composition workshops.  I do, however,  have a very good understanding of music theory and enough keyboard proficiency to help me play the things I hear.  Also, as a student I took all of the harmony courses Berklee had on offer.  Lastly, I have had a desire to compose my own music ever since I began drumming more seriously.  The most important difference is that I practice drums a lot, whereas I do not practice composition at all, except when I compose.  So, with drumming, there is an abundance of knowledge for me to draw upon and then "forget" in order to  let my emotions, intuition and musical instincts take over and make it all flow.  With composition, it is a much more intuitive process driven by a desire to have some music of my own to bring to the world. The common thread is that it all comes down to attempting to create something which would be aesthetically pleasing, my effort is to come up with something beautiful on the drums or in my compositions.

EJ Since I would imagine this has to do with both your drumming, and composing, what kind of music do you find yourself listening to?

MD A lot of different stuff, but always coming back to Interstellar Space (John Coltrane and Rashied Ali), all kinds of Monk stuff, The Police, Fishbone, The Jazz Messengers, Frank Zappa, Weather Report, Corea, Holdsworth (especially Secrets and albums before that), Azra, Leb i Sol, Smak, Mclaughlin's band with Gurtu and Eckehardt, Art Tatum, Tony Williams, Ahmad Jamal, Elvin's album Live At The Lighthouse with Perla, Liebman and Grossman, Mussorgski's Promenade, Smetana's Vltava, Orf's Carmina Burana... The list goes on.........

EJ That's a great list.  Do you draw your inspiration from music mostly, and if so, what kinds?  I know Serbian folk music is one of them.

MD Certainly.  The music I heard as a kid in Serbia is a very important influence both in my drumming and composition.  Other than the Serbian folk tradition, a lot of the Balkan Peninsula countries like Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania have wonderful folk music which has been a source of my inspiration.  One of the the common threads in all of these countries are the Roma People (Gypsies), whose country of origin is India but have migrated through the centuries and have settled in different parts of the world.  In many instances they are the carriers of the music, playing with  groove, feeling,  drive and intensity.  Speaking of Gypsies, there is a wonderful movie by Emir Kusturica called Time Of The Gypsies, with music credited to Goran Bregovic (I say credited, because he actually did quite a bit of appropriating of the folk elements without properly giving credit where it was due, a bit disingenuous if you ask me).  Nevertheless, the music in the movie is quite lovely, and it really taught me the importance of the relationship between the bass and the melody.  This knowledge has made it possible for me to at times compose with the bass and melody in mind, leaving the "middle" open to interpretation.  With this concept, and of course with great musicians to play the music (and I have to say I have not had any less than phenomenal musicians in my band from the very beginning until now, in all of its incarnations) I have at times been able to create very fluid harmonic environments which sound at once strong and ambiguous. Strong because of the definite relationship between the bass and the melody, ambiguous because the "middle" part of the harmony can be "colored in" by each musician according to their feeling at the moment, the aesthetic they bring to the table, their leanings in improv, etc. - all of this adds to the element of adventure in the music.

EJ What sort of influences make their way into your drumming that maybe don't have to do with music?

MD Well, perhaps my answer to your first question gives a bit of a clue.  I am an introspective person with a wide scope of interests.  Just as an example, reading about Cantor, the first mathematician who posited a theory about countable and uncountable infinities, that is to say, infinities of different magnitudes.  It seems quite counter-intuitive until you think about the possibility of infinities actually dispersing in different directions - large scale vs. small scale - not to mention different planes or even dimensions outside the three dimensions we seem to be "boxed in".  I see improvisation in music as an attempt and opportunity to embody infinity - finding yourself in front of an infinite amount of possible choices at any given turn in the music.  Of course, we all fall short of the ideal of infinite possibilities, but I see my development as an improviser to be fully in line with an effort to expand my array of choices and have them extend well beyond merely the things which I have practiced and sure of... If you only play that which you are sure of at every moment it can't really be called improvising.  I would call it "execution".  It is not to say that there aren't some beautiful examples of musical execution on the drumset - think of Steve Gadd playing a few of his trademark phrases on tune after tune.  But for all those who are ready to dismiss him for playing "the same stuff over and over again", there are a few crucial things to be said in his "defense" (as if he needs any :-)):  Gadd actually came up with a lot of the things he plays - those are his creations - this is a HUGE point!!! His flow is incredible!  And lastly, very often, in the midst of familiar Gadd stuff, something would fly by that you haven't heard him do before!!! But I believe Gadd's opus to be an exception, and that, by and large, there are many more "executioners" among all musicians (not just drummers) than there are actual improvisers!

EJ Do you ever have periods where the drums get stale for you and you feel like you're not making the progress you'd like to be making?  Does a good shred session usually remedy that?

MD There is always something  "stale" in my playing, or something I think isn't working the way I feel it should be.  Rare are the days when I feel absolutely invincible - though I have had a few of those days, and nothing quite compares to the feeling.  And by the way, it is not a feeling that comes from an ego pleased by flawless execution.  The absolute opposite - open channels and music just flowing through me to the drums, practically without my involvement...

EJ Are there still things you struggle with on the kit?  My guess is probably not.  But hey, you might be human after all!

MD Oh, and how human I am...I still struggle with things on all levels, from the most mundane to the hard to fathom :-).

EJ What instrument do you wish you could play?

MD I wish I could play every instrument, why not?!  For starters, I could use more piano skills than I currently have, but it would be so nice to just make music on anything you get your hands on - there are certainly quite a few musicians who play a few instruments equally well and it is a marvelous thing to witness...

EJ Indeed it is.  Now I know this question can get tedious, but it's usually insightful to hear it answered.  What has it been like for you being a career musician? You seem to sustain yourself by staying as busy as possible, which I think most creative professional would agree is crucial to success.  Cause it ain't easy.

MD Yeah, it has been a combination of performing and teaching, ever since 1990.  I have been fortunate to be busy enough to keep myself afloat for all these years.  To have a place of your own and be able to have a family is no small feat regardless of what you do for a living and no matter where in the world you happen to reside.  I feel quite fortunate.  I could certainly achieve more in a lot of aspects of my career - this keeps me motivated to strive forward.  But it could be a lot worse too :-).

EJ How do you see the state of music these days?  Every time I ask that question the answer is always an interesting one.

MD Hm, well, I find myself quite opinionated when it comes to this - I would say that most things that people consider to be music without giving it too much thought do not pass my test.  So, I am not really a good person to ask about the state of music, except to say that it is a small miracle that pockets of creative "resistance" still exist!

EJ Creative resistance.  I like that.  Let's pray that miracle sustains!  Just to satisfy my curiosity, and I think people will be interested to know as well, who are some contemporary drummers that you admire?

MD Well, the first important thing to say is that some of the great drummers are no longer among us, though all of the great drum set players could be considered our "contemporaries" given the relative youth of the drum set (about 100 years old).  The second thing is that these lists are always incomplete, because every once in a while I come across someone I have never heard of, and they are absolutely fantastic.  Having said all this, I will go with some names which may not show up on the radar all the time, but have been some of the ones I have enjoyed hearing the most, because of their musicality which is embodied in a creative and innovative approach to our beloved instrument: Chad Hunley, Rashied Ali, Dan Weiss, Mark Ferber, Ari Hoenig, Rudy Royston, Nate Wood would be some of them...there are certainly many more!

EJ Who would you be nervous to perform with?  Past or present.  Future if you have that ability.

MD I don't think nervous is the right word, the feeling would be so much more encompassing than that :-).  A chance to "go for a ride" with Trane would be the first thing I would ask for, that is for sure :-).  Either in the Elvin or Ali periods - I simply love the intensity of these musical interactions (check out "One Up One Down" with Elvin Jones, or "Leo" with Rashied Ali).  Playing drums on a Frank Zappa guitar solo would be another one.  Holdsworth. I have done some playing with Wayne Krantz over the years, but it would be a blast to play in his band.  Sting, Ani di Franco "So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter" live album vibe. There are many more but I tried to give a wide stylistic scope here...

EJ Let's end by talking about the future.  Where do you see drumming headed?  Where would you like to see it go?  You're certainly one of the true innovators, but it's only fair to recognize that there are others who are pushing and evolving the craft as well.  I think some great things are happening!

MD Yeah, I also think there is some beautiful playing going on!  Those are the "pockets of creative resistance" I have been talking about!  As for where drumming is headed - who knows?  But I live my life trying to take my drumming to places which have not been visited, and there are more than a few others who are doing the same.  As long as there is impetus to do so, and a creative spark to light the flame, both real drumming and real music will be OK.  This creativity also serves as an alternative to mediocre and uncreative "pulp" (some of which I have already mentioned earlier) which is mercilessly pumped out by a cross/marketing machine that tells you what to wear, what to listen to, and makes every attempt to sell you on the idea that having 50 brands of laundry detergent to pick from is a measure not only how much freedom and choice one has in life, but how creative one is with the choices one makes.

EJ I love that answer.  Anything you care to promote in closing?  Current projects, upcoming projects, projects under wraps that you can announce exclusively here at the Townhouse?  The Townhouse would get a lot of street cred for that.

MD Well, the best thing I can do is direct everyone to  my Facebook page - if anyone cares to keep up with what I am up to, this would be the best place to do it.  The most relevant to promote would be my latest album Something Beautiful 1709-2110, which is available through all the usual channels (iTunes, CD Baby, etc.) and has been quite nicely received by the reviewers around the world.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the projects I have been involved with these days other than my own group Sveti, like playing with the blues Hall Of Fame R&B guitarist Clarence Spady, being a member of Sean Nowell's Kung Fu Masters, playing with Ole Mathisen's Outlier and The Take Off Collective (with Matt Garrison and Ole Mathisen).

There is also my Youtube channel, golmanijev, although just searching my name and drums is better, as there is a whole lot more there than the 20 or so videos I have posted myself. There are also about 50+ releases I play on (six of those being my four albums and two DVD's), so "Google-ing" my name and drums will take you to quite a few different albums you may (or may not:-)) be interested in.

Lastly, these EPKs for different aspects of my activities as a leader and a solo artist:

www.presskit.to/markodjordjevic

www.presskit.to/markodjordjevicsveti

www.presskit.to/markodjordjevicsvetielectric

EJ Wonderful.  And if you ever come to Atlanta, how about a jam session?

MD Only if we can get Lady Gaga to sing with us :-).  Let's do it!

EJ Sweet, we'll see what we can do!  Thanks for stopping by, it's truly been a pleasure!

MD Thank you, and everyone who got this far down the interview :-)!

As mentioned, Marko's work can be found in various places on the interwebs.

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Evan Jones is a painter, drummer, and avid music lover.