Rachel Blumberg is an all-around talented person who lives in Portland, Oregon. She’s drummed for the Decemberists, Bright Eyes, and Mirah, among many others, and performs in her own project Arch Cape. Rachel is a skilled drum teacher; in addition to teaching many private students, she has developed and teaches creative music workshops for kids. And she makes some of my favorite paintings in Portland! I’ve been lucky to be able to collaborate musically with Rachel recently; we’re also working together on the Move Your Money Portland campaign to get our music community’s money out of the big corporate banks. Rachel is an inspiration to many people, in Portland and beyond, and for this feature, she sat down and had a conversation with one of her inspirations, Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo.
Name: Rachel Blumberg
Hometown/current city: Portland, OR
Past bands: The Decemberists, Norfolk & Western, Boy Crazy, Bright Eyes, Mirah, Jolie Holland, Laura Gibson, and many more
Current bands: M.Ward, Arch Cape, Michael Hurley and many more projects, collaborations, etc.
Other pursuits/projects: painting and other art making, film making (especially stop motion animation), teaching
Dayjob: painting, playing music (touring/recording/shows), teaching, film making
Name: Georgia Hubley
Hometown/current city: Hoboken, NJ
Current bands: Yo La Tengo, The Condo Fucks, The Mad Scene
Other pursuits/projects: drawing, painting, and other arts
Dayjob: Yo La Tengo
In the words of Rachel Blumberg: I have been a fan of Yo La Tengo since about 1986, the year their first album Ride The Tiger came out. I started listening to all their records and they really became icons to me. Their ability to channel so many different kinds of music and make everything their own is amazing to me. I love their goofiness/serious all at once approach. And then there is Georgia Hubley. Her drumming style is fluid and feely. Her beats are awesome and unique. She is a lot of fun to watch play. I finally got to meet Georgia in 2007. I was on a tour drumming with Bright Eyes and I found her leaning against a wall, waiting outside the stage door. Timidly I decided to go up and say hello. She was so nice. So congenial. We have remained in touch ever since. [This past September] I [saw them] play a show, joined them on stage for a couple songs, and then went to their rehearsal space in Hoboken, NJ to conduct this interview, along with my good pal and photographer extraordinaire Alicia J. Rose, who snapped photos of the whole thing.
Rachel Blumberg: When did you start playing?
Georgia Hubley: I guess I started playing, shoot, I was older, I was maybe a late teenager and I had a friend who had just gotten a little practice kit and somehow, i don’t remember why even, I wanted to start playing and then I just started to get into it, and I didn’t play with anyone for a really long time. I would just play along with records and what not.
Where there any particular records that you liked to play along to?
Um, I would definitely like to play along to Rolling Stones records!
Awesome. Charlie Watts!
Yeah. Or almost anything that I thought I could tackle. Sort of like, “Oh it seems like I know how to do that.” And that would be, you know, incentive.
Did you sit down at first on a righty kit and then did you figure it out later? (Georgia plays lefty)
Yeah I had a real point of confusion. I think I always knew that I was lefty like upper body, but I started out using my right foot for the kick drum. I was living with my mom actually and I had a little practice kit in our apartment that I would play and I kind of mocked it up. I actually didn’t have a hi-hat but I had a flood lamp from art school that I turned into my hi-hat. So I knew that I wanted the snare on the right side and I was just playing along and it sort of dawned on me that that wasn’t going to work, but I had already made some strides with my right foot so I was sort of bummed out, but I hadn’t really gotten THAT far so I was like, “You have to start over,” so I made my left foot my kick foot.
So you figured it out yourself!
I figured it out myself.
That’s cool. It’s cool to hear you using a flood lamp as a hi hat because actually I have a lot of students who start drumming and they can’t afford a kit right away so I always tell them to…
Just make the thing.
Yeah, just make things up, like use cookie tins and something under your foot that makes a sound.
That’s cool. So did you ever have any lessons?
I did have very informal lessons. I had a friend of my sisters who was a drummer and he gave me lessons for a little while, but I don’t think he was a real teacher. He gave me a couple of little things to do but it wasn’t really quite working. I had people give me little things to learn. Actually Stanley Demeski from The Feelies gave me a couple of lessons too.
Yeah he was great! But I barely remember that and then also I think Yo La Tengo existed already by then, and I already knew him and he knew I was a drummer but I think he kind of felt weird giving me lessons so that didn’t work. It’s like I didn’t really go to a professional teacher, I just had people I knew showing me.
Was Yo La Tengo your first band or did you play in others?
No I had a band when I went to art school. I met this woman in life drawing class, she was the model, and somehow we got to talking and she knew that I was playing drums. I didn’t have anyone to play with but she was like, “Oh I’ve been playing with some people. Do you want to come play?” I was like, “Ok sure.” So I ended up joining this all girl band.
Do you remember the name?
We didn’t have a name for a long time, and by the time I left we still had never had a show. We just got together. It was really fun actually. In fact I think it was the guitar player who came with me to buy my first kit. They eventually called themselves The Dangerous Curves, but that was kind of after I left and quit. They got a name because they had a show. It’s very much like Yo La Tengo. We didn’t have a name until we had a show!
When did you guys meet James [McNew]?
We met James when he was in a band called Christmas that Ira and I were friends with and had known for a long time. They were originally from Boston. So James was in Christmas and they liked our band. And then eventually, they were on hiatus for while. He had already moved from Virginia up to Providence where they were all living and he said, “Ya know if you need someone I can fill in.” I think we had a tour and we were completely running out of people who could just pick up and go on tour, so he said he would do it and then it was really fun and he came down and practiced and then after a while he just decided to stay.
You guys have been playing together for ….
Yeah, a long long time. I think that was ‘91.
Do you happen to remember the first kit you played on?
Yeah, I have pieces of it. I had a pretty cool old Slingerland kit but the paint has all been chipping off.
I got my first kit when I was thirteen. This is really funny. I remember my dad took me to this decrepit apartment complex and I remember we walked into this apartment and it was just filled with pot smoke and the heads all had pot leaves and flowers drawn on them and we brought this thing home and it had two kicks and four rack toms. It was like two kits together. It was a crappy old giant kit. I didn’t know the value of it. I love playing vintage drums now.
What do you play now?
Well, I’m always just sort of mix and matching.
Do you try different drums for different tours and recording, just different stuff?
Sometimes. Yeah. A lot of times it’s just, “Well this one sounds pretty good right now.”
I’m actually really happy to hear that….I do that too!
I just know if it sounds horrible, it’s horrible. And tuning is really tricky. The thing is it changes. You could be in a different room and it will sound different.
Yeah it changes all the time.
Sometimes I’ll be here and I’ll either like or not like how something sounds and then I’ll pack it up and think, “That’s not what it sounded like.”
So when you guys are recording do you swap different drums out for different songs? Likes snares and stuff?
Yeah, often I’ll do that, and then a lot of times when we’re recording, I’ll throw like some kind of material over the snare just to have it be a really weird dead sound and it just sounds good on tape, but other then that often they will get to a place where they’re pretty good and then I’ll just leave them.
You’ll just be happy with them?
Yeah. Occasionally I’ll switch them out for different songs.
But you might find something and then it starts to feel right and then you just got with it?
Yeah, yeah. Cymbals are probably the things I change more.
When you guys write, is it collaborative, and has the dynamics and roles of the group changed over time, over the twenty years in regards to that.
It’s definitely collaborative. Usually what happens is when we are making up songs or pieces everyone just kind of falls into something, you know. Let’s say I’m playing drums, and I’m not always playing drums, I could be playing something else, but I’ll usually just be inspired by whatever beat I am hearing and come up with whatever – – this sound or that sound – and everyone kind of does that and a lot of times it is just like, “Wow this is magical,” and then you just kind of build on that. And then other times someone will suggest, ” I think this would be cool if you did it this way,” so it’s a variety of things really.
Right. Do you find, that there are songs that you’ve built up from drum beats?
Oh yeah, sometimes. Sometimes I’ll just start playing something and someone will join in.
It sounds really organic.
It’s pretty organic. It’s shockingly non verbal. I mean, and then a lot of things get tossed too or will get changed. A lot of things get completely unrecognizable, to the point where it was this little kernel and then it ends up so changed.
You rework and rework.
Yeah, we do. Right now we are working on writing songs and they’re in the super organic stage which is really fun. A couple of months ago we did a few songs where James played drums. I was playing guitar. and then we just kept doing stuff. And then a lot of times we’ll just throw on a drum machine or something. Sometimes when we are making up stuff, there won’t even be drums for a long time (laughter).
Oh right cause you’ll be on keyboard or you guys will be doing other melodic stuff?
Yeah it just varies.
That’s cool. I’m glad to hear that because that’s how I imagined it would be. One thing I’ve been curious about in regards to the creation process is ‘Sounds of Science.’ I saw you guys do that live with the films in Portland and it was really fantastic!
Yeah, I really loved and noticed that you were switching between mallets and brushes and all sort of things I couldn’t quite see. I like when you do that. When you were composing the music for that did you just watch the film and react, just go for it or was there a more thought out process?
I think we actually had a couple of little snippets of sound bites that we just were stockpiling. That’s usually what we do. For a long time we would just play this little thing and that little thing and tape them. So we had had a lot of these little crazy sounds and stuff that we were doing. This was at a an old space we had in Jersey City and then the opportunity came up that we were gonna do that show live, so at that point we actually had a deadline and we needed to come up with songs for these 8 movies, so we went back and found some pieces and built them up from there. I know at the time I was really taken with this percussionist Susie Ibarra. Do you know her?
I love her.
And so I think I was sort of in my mind doing things I thought that were imitating what she might do. So there was definitely some inspiration at that time, of you know, non linear playing and weird playing and noises.
Different tones and textures?
Yeah. Different tones and textures. Not specific beats but just sounds. There’s a couple pieces that I just pick up a bunch of shit and kind of bang it around in the drum area, wherever they land.
( laughter) I love that!
Like maracas, or claves. Yeah, just noisemakers. Various noisemakers I would just have at my disposal.
What other drummers have you been influenced by or who are some of your favorite?
There’s, ya know, tons. At the time that I became aware of Susie we were going to see a lot of different kinds of jazz stuff that was a lot more open and and free and so there was THAT kind of thing having an influence on me. You know we used to we did some things with Other Dimensions in Music.
Who are some others? Or maybe from when you were younger?
When I was younger, I would like to say the person who made me want to play drums, but, you know, it’s hard to pinpoint specific people. Will Rigby was a big influence on me. He’s a lefty drummer. That meant a lot to me (laughter). He was the dB’s drummer and I knew him personally. You know it would sort of be like you’d have a multi-layered connection to someone. But I think I’ve always been drawn to drummers specifically when you really feel like they have a real personality and their playing has a personality. It’s not just drums. So a lot of time I’m just seeing, you know watching them, not necessarily listening to records. So when I think of people, it’s more who is really fun to watch. They have a certain expression, you know?
I do know what you meant, about having the multi-layered connection. You’re one of my favorite drummers!
Oh thank you Rachel! That’s nice.
Also Jim White.
Yeah, Jim White’s cool.
I call him the Matisse of drummers cause he looks like he’s painting.
Yeah yeah yeah, right! (laughter). That’s funny. And I’ve hardly seen you play. I keep wanting to see you play! I only saw you really with the Bright Eyes tour and then when Yo La Tengo played with Matt (M.Ward), when we played in LA…
Have you played with other people outside of Yo La Tengo?
Not too often. Not too often. When I’ve done it it’s usually a really good friend or someone whose music i really love, like David Kilgour (The Clean). I played drums for him, but always with Ira and James. We have played with, you know, backed people so that’s not quite the same thing because we’re still the band.
Ha yes you’re still together!
Yeah (laughter), but I’m trying to think of the last time. I don’t know. I always get a little nervous about it for some reason. It’s kind of like I don’t really care to unless it’s going to be really fun or I love the music. And it’s not like I’ve been asked that many times. I’ve been asked to play on a song or record, but not really too often so I don’t really have to worry about it! (laughter).
Yeah yeah yeah.
Oh! I did play about seven or eight years ago, with David Thomas, do you know him? Of Pere Ubu? He asked me to play as part of this opera that he was putting together, Mirror Man.
So what other things do you play? Drums, guitar, and obviously you play keyboards.
I play some keyboards. But I’m a super feel player in general so I just play things that I like. If i really needed to learn how to play a song with chords that go from here to here, with parts, that would be some serious effort.
I totally relate to what you’re saying. I am a super feel player too.
Yeah! I mean sometimes I feel like I could be a better drummer if I applied myself.
I always think that too. I practice, but not enough.
It is fun to try to figure out how to do things. When I am in my more disciplined phases I’ll come in when no one is here which is nice. I don’t get to practice alone very often, but that’s when you can really try things out. I would work to make myself learn how to do this and that and it would just be so spastic for so long, but then eventually you can hear yourself catching it.
Totally, and isn’t it nice when you feel like something starts to to feel like breathing. Actually in the past years I’ve started practicing more. Especially since I am teaching so much.
You have a responsibility.
Yeah I have a responsibility to practice.
And you go on tour with people and learn their songs.
Yeah I do have to learn other people’s parts. Like when I did that Bright Eyes tour I had to learn all those songs from the records so I spent a lot of time doing that, but also I have actually been doing some stick control and rudiments a lot.
I bet it’s useful!
Yeah and satisfying. Once I get into it it’s super fun. It’s like anything. Once you get into it it’s fun. It’s the actual making the thing happen. The inertia. But I always tell my students that to learn something is totally cerebral at first, before the neural pathways are built, and eventually the thing moves to your heart and belly and you feel it.
Yeah, that’s how I play and that’s why learning things is hard cause you’re not used to playing any other way, so for it to get to that stage…
That’s why I love your drumming, because it is so feely. And that’s what I like more than anything. Throw me a feely drummer any day over someone who can show off chops. I want to feel the emotion. There’s a song you guys play, called Mr. Tough. I love that beat and feel.
Oh that’s nice! I love anything that is sort of soul beat. Soul drummers are probably my favorite drummers!
Are there any specific drummers you could name?
I’ll have to play you some. Well one of my favorite drummers is Smokey Johnson. He played on a lot of Fats Domino records but one of the songs that he wrote has this really cool beat and I’ve kind of learned it, but it doesn’t sound the same.
Are there other drummers or records from that realm that you really like?
Well, there’s Eddie Bo. He has this song called Hook and Sling. It’s a super New Orleansey beat. Like they have their second line beats that they do. It’s that but it’s also weirder. It’s funkier. And it just fits and the music is really straight but these drums are all over.
That sounds amazing. Second line drumming is so amazing.
It’s nuts. And it doesn’t sound disjointed. It sounds totally fluid. Soul drumming is my favorite. Yeah. And also there is Howard Grimes who was part of the Stax revue we just saw at Ponderosa Stomp.
One thing that I love about Yo La Tengo is that you guys do so many different things. It seems like you don’t try to do a certain thing, but you just do whatever it is that inspires you and I am curious about how you give yourself the freedom to be so open in your approach.
I think we have now gotten to a point where we’ve sort of gotten used to the fact that we do a lot of different things so that it’s not so overwhelming to contemplate doing something strange or different since now we’ve done it a lot. It’s a good way of learning how to do different things. I mean, we’re all learning how to play things as we go along. Kind of like talking about the drum beats or whatever. Our whole band kind of does that together which is fun. We’ll all sort of say, “Let’s try to figure out how to do this,” and then you just sort of get used to trying to play in different ways and it becomes part of your vocabulary.
Right. Expand your palette!
Yeah you do!
That keeps it more exciting. It’s like you are putting yourself through your own school.
Right! I don’t know how many other bands are like this. I have a feeling not a lot. But I think we are really basically entertaining ourselves by and large, so things like worrying about what to play for a show depending on what scenario, I mean that enters into it for sure. Like if we are opening for such and such. We did these shows opening for The National and that was really great. Actually we were just like, “We’re just gonna do what we do,” and they were so supportive and gave us an hour to play which is amazing. We just did what we do and I am sure a lot of people were like, “What’s this?” And then there were people who were really into it. Mostly it’s almost like we’ve been around for so long doing what we do that why would we try to tailor it to something that we think someone else wants, and who knows what that even is anymore!
Well I feel like you can do that too because I feel like you guys have really influenced a lot of younger bands. I think you have shown that music doesn’t have to be this or that. It can be what you want.
Right. It can be YOUR thing.
Yeah I know and I am sure that people who respond to the band, who like really respond to us, for sure I think that’s one of the things that’s most powerful about us to people.
Yes. I definitely think so.
Intro by Lisa Schonberg
Photos by Alicia J. Rose