Q&A with Jojo Mayer: 21st Century Prohibited Beats


Swiss-born drummer Jojo Mayer doesn’t want to player like robot, but he used to.

(Photo: Maarit Kytöharju)

The setting: Finland’s 36th annual Tampere Jazz Happening, which ran Nov. 2-5. Swiss-born drummer Jojo Mayer’s band Nerve was set to close out a series of concerts at the intimate, yet festive, Klubi.

A veteran player since the ‘80s when he joined Monty Alexander’s group, the 54-year-old Mayer went on to play with Screaming Headless Torsos and Intergalactic Maiden Ballet. In the early ‘90s he moved from Europe to New York City, where he worked as a first-call sideman for a wide range of artists and styles en route to forming Nerve, a band where he’s developed his concepts and techniques of reverse engineering electronic drumbeats in real time using acoustic drums.

Nerve—which also includes John Davis, bass and low-end manipulation; Jacob Bergson on keys and synths; and Aaron Nevezie, sound and realtime audio deconstruction—has a new documentary, Changing Time. And in November, Nerve released its third full-length studio album, Ghosts Of Tomorrow.

DownBeat sat down with Mayer in the festival’s operations office the afternoon before he helped close out the festival.

You’ve had a long relationship with drums and technology. What started it all?
The reason I got into it was because of my taste for freshness. I remember, it was 1994. I was in Glastonbury, playing with Meshell Ndegeocello, and on the side-stage there was like a jungle party, tons of people dancing to beats that, to me, I would more closely associate with Tony Williams Emergency! So, I hear stuff that goes [mimics rapid-fire drum beats a la drum ‘n’ bass]. And I thought, now I cannot afford to ignore this. So, I went back and worked with machines: I worked with samplers, and I did hip-hop, I did dance music, becoming completely obsessed. It was an important time of my life, where I tried to play like a robot ... [T]o make a long story short, in New York, nobody really understood that. Maybe I made a mistake and I should have moved to London. But I stayed in New York and I started a platform that was called Prohibited Beats, which was like a party music.

That was prior to your forming Nerve?
Yeah. That was the soil that Nerve came out of.

Where did you go with Prohibited Beats?
Well, first, I have to say, in the beginning we really tried to sound like electronic records, like electronic music. In the process, I realized that my limitations did not allow me to play like a machine; I cannot do it. However, by the same token, I realized I could still create the illusion that I could play like a machine; I could create the same feeling. So, the real issue wasn’t the legitimacy of a human performance versus a machine performance. The real issue is the value of any performance, machine, robot or human. Once I understood that, it was a really liberating experience, because I found I could forget about the claim of perfection. I no longer needed to be perfect. But I needed to find something to replace it. I replaced the claim for perfection with the claim for clarity. So, once you decide on clarity, you have to ask, what is it that I am trying to communicate? What I’m saying is we’re not trying to sound like robots anymore, but we draw from where the action is, and there’s still a lot of action in some electronic sub-genres, people like Breakbeat Crew and electronic producers that push for new ideas; but not just electronic producers, but any interesting music.

Are these ideas your ideas alone?
No. We pretty much make all decisions as an ensemble. We fight.

What about your drumming? How has it changed over the years?
I think I am able to do more with less. I think it’s a natural process. My gear has really become secondary; I’m less dependent on it.

And what is it you are focusing on as a way to express yourself?
I use less equipment now because the process of elimination really provokes creativity. It’s like, now I only have three notes, so I have to be more creative to make it interesting than if I had five. I still have a bass drum, I have two toms, I have two snare drums. That has not really changed for a long time. I’ve been using a little bit more recording equipment, more processors, like delays. I think my touch has changed a little bit, I don’t hit quite as hard as I used to ‘cause I discovered I have more range of expressivity if I don’t press that hard. I like to rock out, but I think, how can I create the same energy with less physical effort? I have a good set of chops that probably could allow me another 20 years. But when you get into a machine world, you have to know what you’re doing or your arms will fall off after 50 minutes. DB

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