“It seems innately feminine to play rhythm. We are locked in a cycle of rhythm with celestial bodies, and in older tribes the women were the beat makers.”
Before I wrote my questions for Jenean, I asked her to send me a small collection of photos– anything she might want. I suggested perhaps a picture of a favorite object, the place she sits most often in her home, a picture of her as a tiny baby. This way I can get a more human feel for her, one outside of her trance-like drumming, her feathered brown hair, and her vocals that swell with the spirit of ritual. What she sent was a smiling picture of her in a highchair– pure baby bliss, a shot of her mom (also a total babe) and her in an old car with more smiles, a small cross section of her book case, a peak into her living room– calm and warm– and two shots of an absolutely insane mess of equipment with chords hanging out everywhere like an explosion of black yarn. She is experimenting, learning on her own, I thought. This sentiment is confirmed when listening to Farris’ current project, VoicesVoices where she drums and sings with Nico Turner. The band is an exploration in sound and vision, and you are hereby dared to listen without setting out on an expedition of your own.
– By Maggie Wells
Full name: Jenean Farris
Nickname/pseudonym: Neener, Roja, Red
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Where do you live now: Los Angeles, CA
Bands you are drumming in currently: VOICEsVOICEs
Bands you were drumming for in the past: Shiloe, The Ringers, and various other projects since I was 14
What you do for a living: Research & Development for an entrepreneurial company
Tom Tom Magazine: When did you start playing drums?
Jenean Farris: When I was 13
Tom Tom Magazine: Reason that you started playing drums?
Jenean Farris: I was always around musicians and instruments from a very young age. Both my parents were musicians and played in punk bands when I was growing up. I was always more attracted to the drums, and chose to focus on that. Since my parents played guitar and my sister sang, we almost could’ve had have a modern day black sheep Partridge family thing. I ultimately just love the heaviness of drums, and how tribal and natural it feels to get lost into a drum pattern. It seems innately feminine to play rhythm. We are locked in a cycle of rhythm with celestial bodies, and in older tribes the women were the beat makers. That makes sense.
Tom Tom Magazine: What is your favorite drum set-up? Why?
Jenean Farris: I play pretty non-traditionally. My set up is low so I “break my wrists” a lot to hit certain drums, and end up looking fairly caveman-ish when I play. Currently I play on a 5 piece Ludwig set with Zildjian Custom K cymbals and 5b sticks. I prefer deep bass and floor tom sounds, and generally want to hear my drums resonate with a full rounded sound, instead of tight and thin. It’s definitely not cool nowadays to have more than one rack tom, but I use two just because I like the options in sounds and surfaces to hit.
TTM: What do you think the role of a drummer is in a band?
JF: Not conventional. I feel drummers are unfairly regarded as novelties or even disposable, but that viewpoint needs to change. Drummer jokes should be traded out for crappy lead-guitar soloist jokes.
TTM: Do you play any other instruments? If so … how does that effect your drumming?
JF: I do. I play guitar, keyboard, sing, and write and record songs. It allows me to think of a song in full terms.
TTM: What do you consider to be the most challenging thing about the drums?
JF: Lugging them around town! It’s such a pain. I’ve been doing it for years now, and it’s definitely taking a toll. Good thing is a lot of venues provide drums, but they are usually pretty crappy.
TTM: What’s your favorite part about playing drums?
JF: Getting lost in it. Feeling primal. Closing my eyes and seeing colors in the beat. Just the feeling of connection to something invisible and so meaningful. It almost can’t be described. And of course, showing-up the boys.
TTM: Have you experienced any setbacks as a female drummer?
JF: Mostly just in fighting stereotypes or feeling like you have to prove yourself. I get really offended that women are put in that position in the first place, and especially with something as inherent as music. No woman should ever feel like she has to prove she is “as good” as her male counterpart, or be treated disrespectfully because of her gender. It’s tough in the music industry because you have to fight sexism all the way from the guys at the music store, to the sound guys at venues, and product marketing. But if you can get to a place where you know what you’re dealing with and don’t let it affect you negatively, you can have some really great perks as a female drummer.
TTM: Who are your favorite drummers?
Simone Pace of Blonde Redhead
BJ Miller of Health
Dylan Wood of 60 Watt Kid
Aaron Johnston of Brazilian Girls
John Bonham of Led Zeppelin
John Theodore of Mars Volta
Jaki Liebezeit of CAN
Phil Selway of Radiohead
TTM: If you could change one thing about the drums what would it be?
JF: Magical thinking allows me to envision a drum set that’s completely compactable and easily portable but still maintains quality and sound. C’mon engineers, get to it!
TTM: Where do you shop for your drum gear?
JF: Everywhere. Used online mostly, ebay, craigslist, friends, specialty stores etc. And if I can’t find what I’m looking for, I’ll shop at the majors. But I try not to.
TTM: What are some of your other hobbies / interests?
JF: Science, multi-media design, feminism, activism, experimental music, water sports, taco trucks.
TTM: Are the vocals in your projects always organic? Do they grow in the same garden as the music or are they planted afterwards?
JF: The vocals are primarily organic. A lot of times our songs would begin with a vocal landscape that we’d loop and build musical arrangements off them. Most of the times that we’d add lyrics, it would come after the structure of the song was created. But a lot of unstructured, purely felt vocals were the basis of our songs.
TTM: I can imagine that with a loud enough system, you might feel able to reach a trance like state in your songs. Do you find them meditative?
JF: Yes, and other people have too. It was never intentional, but it just turned out that way. What naturally came out of us. Drums are always trance inducing for me. Especially when I just practice alone. I’m able to create a pattern that I build off of, and get completely lost in the rhythmic circles of the beat.
TTM: Are you interested in native cultures? If so, what is the most intriguing to you and why?
JF: I am part Native American, Cherokee. I’m also Irish. I feel a connection to both those ancestries. Both had roots in exploring the supernatural and mystical. I don’t believe in religion or the occult. But I think tribes were genuinely just trying to explain things that seemed mystical before they had scientific explanations. Today, when any group of people use religious rituals for tradition’s sake, I think that is fine. It’s just when you seriously believe in old explanations and don’t give credit to the logical explanations of science, that you haven’t really progressed.
TTM: I know it’s difficult to live in Texas without being exposed to “church.” Were you raised religiously? I find your musical inclinations very fitting for a sacred space like the silence of a large chapel.
JF: I was raised in a religious background. Southern Baptist to be exact. Which is a pretty strict Christian denomination. I never identified with religion and actually found it very contradictory. But I can relate with the heightened feelings you can access through religious practices, and understand why people seek it in their lives. I think our music is very fitting for a big chapel. The natural reverb in a space like that, and the epically tall ceilings lend itself to a heightened experience in music. Some of my favorite sounds come from voices in a chapel. It gives me goose bumps.
TTM: Have you ever played drums in a project that was aggressive? Is that out of tune with your source?
JF: I played in a few different bands growing up. When I was younger, I practiced drums with my dad playing metal guitar, and I played in a grunge band when I was 15. Then later, I played in a post-punk / no-wave group that had me doing faster, more up-tempo beats. It really worked me out physically and I got much tighter and quicker on the drums. And I enjoy playing fast, busting out like Animal from the Muppets. But I also like more spacial drumming too. I think my “source” is probably most like the way Jon Bonham plays – heavy, chugging along like a train with sporadic engine explosions.
TTM: When you decided to play the drums, did you feel like it was an extremely life changing decision? Like were you at that moment grabbing something you wanted from life? Or was it a decision you barely made, that in fact, ended up having a great influence on your life?
JF: I don’t know if I thought of it as a life changing decision. I just knew I really wanted to do it. I think maybe I was grabbing at something I wanted from life. I needed something more, and needed a creative outlet that let me work my demons out. And drums gave that to me. When I got my first drum set my parents divorced and I was moved all the way to west Texas – the desert. And I would just spend hours playing them out in the middle of nowhere. Listening to the drums echo off the canyons. Because no one lived near us, I could go jump on my set anytime the mood arose. Sometimes at 4am I’d be out there banging away.
TTM: What is one of your top three most amazing musical experiences?
JF: 1. Watching Jesus Makes The Shotgun Sound play at this art gallery in Los Angeles. They shared the bill with us and when they went on, it was literally one of the most moving musical experiences yet. They are truly amazing. Very epic, progressive, effected vocals, intense, skilled. They hit all the right spots. It was a musical orgasm.
2. Anytime I jam with someone, or a group of people, and it lasts for hours. Just getting totally lost and feeling every next step of the music naturally, without talking, just communicating through the sounds.
3. Listening to my mom play guitar when I was growing up. She would just pull out her guitar randomly and start strumming and singing. She wrote a lot of her own songs and I would request them every time she played. She’d also play Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, and Beatles covers. My favorite was when she’d play around bedtime and I’d fall asleep listening to her
TTM: This is not a question but still; I watched the drum-off at the smell. Thank you for that.
JF: You’re welcome.
Charles Mallison– photographer for tom tom shoot
Maggie Wells– interviewer