Carla Azar has the makings of a rock star and the personality of someone you want as your best friend and bandmate. Azar has been mastering the kit for nearly a decade with her sound-heavy experimental L.A. rock band, Autolux. While recording with Autolux off and on all year, Carla has also managed keep herself busy with another endeavour – Jack White. After playing on his latest album Blunderbuss, last summer, Jack invited her to join him on a series of tour dates with a twist. White has been touring with two completely different bands all year. One is all female, the other all male. The decision on which band will play that night is decided the day of the show by Jack, with the audience never knowing which performance they will get to see that night. After both bands played on Saturday Night Live earlier this year, the internet was on fire with both praise and critique of the project. When I found out Jack was playing Radio City Music Hall, I jumped at the chance to see one of my favorite drummers live. It was one of the best shows I have seen in ages. Carla and Jack’s chemistry was palpable even from thirty rows back, in the completely packed venue. Seeing how fabulously they got on onstage, I had to know how they got on offstage so I asked Carla if Jack would mind asking her questions for the interview. In the next couple of paragraphes, Jack and Carla talk exclusively for Tom Tom. Then I ask her a few more questions. The photos were taken by the incredibly talented Jo McCaughey.
Name: Carla Azar
Lives In: Los Angeles, Ca
Current Bands: Autolux, Jack White
Jack White: How do you feel when you walk into a club and you see a drumset composed of 12 or 15 drums? What are your first thoughts?
Carla Azar: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drum set with that many drums on stage at a club. I think my first thought might be, you better be Keith Moon, and it better be 1975. And The Who better be playing with you. Keith had at least that many at one point. But he’s Keith Moon and he could pull it off. I’ve never played that many drums in one drum set. I’m more excited about advanced minimalism with bursts of chaos. I personally don’t need that many drums to do that. But, I would probably stay to see the drummer with the 12-15 drums just out of curiosity.
I know when I play music, I play to the drummer. Who do you play to or what do you play to when you perform?
It obviously depends on what instruments are being played at any given moment, but if there’s someone singing, I always play off of the singer. The singer basically dictates where I play fills and what kind of fills I play. It’s an unconscious thing at this point. Whatever the strongest melodic or rhythmic thing is that’s going on, that’s what I play to, although I’m always listening to everyone – everyone but myself. I never hear myself until I’m already finished. With you, Mr. White, your voice is so unbelievably rhythmic, it’s almost as if I’m playing to another percussion instrument. The same goes for your guitar playing. You basically have bass, drums, guitar, and melodies happening all by yourself at the same time.
Can drummers learn anything from beats composed on computers or drum machines?
I think a drummer can learn from anything that’s good, anything that feels good. Whether it’s played by a human, programmed by a human, or programmed by a program. I know that I definitely have. Besides all of the classic rock, blues, rhythm and blues, etc. that I listen to, I listen to a lot of hip-hop and electronic music. When I was younger, I actually learned who James Brown’s drummer was through Public Enemy. They sampled him a lot and used programming along with the loops of him that they had sampled. I fell in love with every aspect of it. There is a real art form in programming rhythms/beats for songs. I definitely seem to gravitate towards synthetic drum sounds when it comes to programming. Aphex Twin is a good example. Richard D. James probably doesn’t play drums, but he composes all of those weird rhythms and sounds himself. I don’t necessarily try to copy those rhythmic parts, but it’s definitely an influence on the way I feel, which affects the way I play and how I play fills. I don’t know how many times I’ve been listening to some crazy programmed beat and there will be one moment or bar that I completely rip off because it’s so original and great, something a drummer would never have come up with. This has hugely influenced beats in Autolux. But what I don’t really enjoy are separate samples of real drums that are used to program a beat, trying to sound like a real drummer playing. That really gets my goat.
How do you regard silence?
For me, silence is one of the most powerful things in music – in both studio recordings and live. I really can’t explain this one.
Where is the line where a drummer is “over” playing to a song? Do you feel that that’s a showbiz rule for live performance or something important for studio recordings as well?
The drummer has crossed that line usually (in my observation) when they aren’t listening to anyone but themselves, which results in unmusical nonsense. When they’re actually taking away from the song or music, instead of adding to it. A lot of times musicians like this can’t handle silence, they always have to be playing at all times. This drives me crazy. The music or song that’s being played dictates how much I play and what I play. It’s always the case. I’m pretty sure you can’t teach this to someone. People that overplay at all the wrong times (or right times) usually don’t know they’re doing it. That’s just the way they approach and feel music. I view studio recording and live performance as two completely different forms of expression. But, I don’t ever believe in over playing to a song in either setting. How much to play really just depends on the song or the feeling in the room at any given moment. I love drummers that do everything – simple and hypnotic at times and completely unpredictable, insane, and out of control at other times. And everything in between. When you never really know when those times are going to happen, even when you’ve seen the same drummer and band several times. And I like music or a band that provides a landscape for all of this to go on.
What rudiment do you drum on your steering wheel while driving?
I can honestly say, I’ve never “drummed” on my steering wheel. But, you did teach me a rudiment this year and I didn’t believe it existed because of the name. I thought you made it up: The Ratamacue.
I know that you love Mitch Mitchell as I do, how do you think he’d be considered if he first started performing this year?
I do love Mitch Mitchell. I think he’d be considered a great drummer, if he was as great as he was with Jimi Hendrix. But I think he’d also have to be in a great band again too. I only feel that I’m at my best, or even noticeable, when I’m playing with great musicians – musicians that are better than me.
How do you feel about using both of your feet for a bass drum since we use both of our hands for a snare drum?
I’m pretty sure you’re asking me if I’ll accept your offer of you giving me your Ludwig double bass drum set. Yes, I’d love it, thanks. Dave Lombardo from Slayer is probably the best one on planet Earth using both feet for bass drums. He has such great feel while playing incredibly fast beats. I suppose I feel pretty good about using both feet. I’ve only dabbled in it a few times myself in recording. One of the bass drums was actually a large plastic bin.
And lastly do you still want to be friends?
I really do.
Alright, this is where the Jack interviewing Carla part ends and where I, Mindy, the Editor of this magazine, picked up and asked Carla a few more things I was curious about.
Tom Tom Magazine’s Mindy Abovitz: How do you feel about being on tour with 2 bands at the same time with Jack that are split by gender?
Carla Azar: It’s actually interesting. We alternate pretty much every night, so one night it’s the girls, and the next, the guys. We basically play the same material but each band has their own interpretation of the same songs. It’s definitely a test of ego, self-confidence, humility – all of that. When you go out on tour to play music, you’re usually one band taking on the world, or at least that’s the idea. But in this case, you’re not the only band on tour playing that music. There’s another one, and they’re gong to play tomorrow instead of you. It’s hard at times, but we all get along pretty well. We all love playing with Jack, so somehow it works out.
Did you have an unexpected experience from it or have you learned anything from it?
Yes, I’ve definitely learned some things from it. If you throw a bunch of females and males on a tour, both playing the same music but in 2 different bands, you really start to see the differences between the two genders. The men play differently to Jack than the women do. And Jack plays differently as well. I don’t want to think that’s true, but it is. I’m not saying this is a rule, I can only speak from this experience and this group of people. There’s definitely more sexual chemistry between the females and Jack. But that’s just the nature of a male playing with females. It’s not as though it’s anything that’s conscious, it’s just how it is. And to me, it’s fascinating to watch those differences.
Had you played with any of the other women in the band before tour?
Yes, I recorded with Brooke (piano), Lillie Mae (fiddle), Bryn (bass), and Ruby (vox) on Jack’s album and some other things a few months before we started touring.
What’s it like working with Jack?
It’s wonderful. I think he’s one of the few people that could inspire me enough to actually pull me away from Autolux for a second. Jack is fearless. For me, that best describes what he’s like to work with. He doesn’t seem to have the second-guess-yourself chip while he’s in the throes of creating music. That quality is incredibly powerful. In a recording situation, for example, his ideas come out (and he has a lot) and if he doesn’t like something after the fact, he just won’t use it. But at least his thoughts all get a shot. I’ve worked with musicians that sit around and talk about why an idea isn’t going to work before they even try it. They stop themselves before recording it. Jack is also incredibly generous when working with other musicians, which is also fearless. He lets musicians be who they are, doesn’t try to control them or the situation – while completely maintaining control the whole time. Usually people who try to control everyone are scared of failing. It comes from being insecure. You can’t think about that while you’re in the middle of creating something. You actually have no control over that anyway. Jack doesn’t give into some pre-conceived notion of how things should be. He chooses people he likes to play with and brings out the best in them.
How do you juggle your own project Autolux and being on tour with another band?
Well, the way I’ve been touring with Jack all year has been two weeks on – two weeks off. Every time I get home, I’ve been using those 2 weeks to write and record with Autolux. We’ve also managed to play shows during this time too.
What are the plusses and minuses (drawbacks) of taking time from your band to be on tour with Jack?
There are definitely more plusses than anything. Touring all year with Jack has been great because after playing live for a couple of weeks with him, my playing is always in a really strong place to record. Usually when you make a record, you’re not in the middle of touring while making it. It’s also made me a better drummer. Playing music with Jack is so different than Autolux, and it’s challenging in a completely different way. This is obviously a positive thing for Autolux, even though I’ve had to split my time between the two. The only drawback that I can see is that perhaps the Autolux record would have been finished sooner.
What are your future plans?
Finishing recording Autolux’s record is a priority. We’re talking about releasing it out next summer. So that means I’ll be touring next year with Autolux quite a bit.
In three words, describe the LA music scene
Does not exist.
Who else would you like to play with (in a band) alive or dead?
David Bowie (from 1976), Nick Cave, Polly Harvey, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Raymond Scott – but not necessarily in that order.
If you could influence people in one way…in what way would you hope to influence them?
One thing that’s very important to me in life is that I always try to maintain a sense of innocence in whatever I do. The way I look at the world, other people, and the way I approach music. I try my best to view everything – coming from a place of humility. And to know that no matter how good I think I’m getting, there will always be someone better than me. That keeps me in a constant state of growth.
Interview by Jack White & Mindy Abovitz
Photos by Jo McCaughey