Name: Steph Shaker
Kit: Pearl “Vision” Series with Tiger Eye finish. Drums have been re-skinned
Cymbals: Zildjian A Series
Favorite food: Whiskey
“I’ve always enjoyed hitting things as hard as I could; walls, windows, chairs. I finally started hitting the drums instead almost two years ago.”
Stephanie Kowalewich is getting ready to head out on the road with her band Durban Poison. Looking at this 23 year Vancouver Island native, you wouldn’t think she could be the hammers of a band soon to generate a few sonic tsunamis on this tour of Canada’s western provinces. I spoke with Stephanie in January and February of this year about playing drums and what lies on the road ahead.
A bartender by profession, a Libra according to the stars, Stephanie reveals that having fun and playing music is what makes her life fulfilling. She says that music used to live in the background of her life, but it has now completely taken over.
“After I started playing with Durban there was no turning back.”
At a young age, in her all-girl private school, Steph would choose to represent her musical aspirations by grabbing a pair of drumsticks on music day. Though she wanted to learn, the closest she got was to buy her own pair of sticks and “pound the pillows” until the age of 20 when an electric kit was first purchased.
Few lessons aside, Stephanie is primarily self-taught. She found her motivation to learn after seeing Durban Poison play one night with The Shakedown and The Jolts. Durban’, Matti Corvette explains she met Steph that night and again at a house party. Matti would go on to ask her to jam and see if she could help fill a drummer vacancy for an upcoming tour.
“Steph and I jammed for the first time at Lemon Tree Studios about two years ago now. I was curious to see if this drummer girl had potential to play in our group. She was jamming with someone else, but I could plainly see there was not much life between his complicated guitar riffing and her limited experience, so it was time for me to plug in. Rather than try to confuse her with complications I chose one of the most fun songs I know to play on the drums, and out came Wild Thing by the Animals. She came to life beating those skins to the primitive rock and roll guitar. I couldn’t believe it; I knew this could be our girl.”
Stephanie started jamming a lot with Durban, jumping in when she heard a rhythm establish itself, stating she had to figure it out for herself so she could continue to play with this band.
“Turns out punk rock is just energy. You just hit as hard as you can. I play aggressively; not angry. Every day I’m walking and I’m singing. I listen to a lot of music and try to pull beats in my head. It’s just the way I live. I’m thinking you have to have some sense of beat inside you and a love of music to be a drummer,” said Shaker.
Shaker also plays the bass, having received one as a special birthday gift. Playing it as much as she can, it’s another instrument she has picked up instinctively from following music and beats that never quite leave her head.
Ready to venture into that first tour, Stephanie sold her electrics and bought a set of used Pearl Visions with a tiger eye finish and hardware for about $1,200. Stephanie admits to not being very technical or gear savvy about her instrument of choice. When I asked about just basics like sticks, she said she plays with a few sets nearby, two on the kick and plays stick to skin. Sometimes she will try out new sticks from other drummers, like Matt Von Dander from The Jolts, who she mentions she has learned a lot from. Steph remarks that while she doesn’t have drummer idols, she is amazed by the talent of some; “…like Matt; and Mauro from The Brains, who is just… so insane to watch on the drums.”
Stephanie has a rapid delivery in her conversational style and speaks with measured enthusiasm for the life that surrounds her. She admits that her “crazy side” comes out after you get to know her a while. As a social person who thrives off of others, she tends to keep to herself during her downtime. I detect an artistic side to Stephanie and indeed her own environment includes creative works from friends along with objects that reflect an appreciation for classics and antiques. The old tom for a side table, or an old cymbal and some broken sticks definitely suggests that a drummer certainly lives within.
“I also work on some stuff myself,” Shaker says, “I paint and I sketch some. I’m not very good but I enjoy it.”
The physical objects in someone’s environment reveal a lot about a person, but what’s in their musical collection reveals even more.
“I listen to The Jolts, Brains, DOA, Dayglos, Dead Kennedy’s, Misfits, Cramps, Gaggers, Clash, and the Pistols. I think I could have fallen in love with the punk scene in England and would have really loved to have seen the Ramones. I believe that to be a musician, you have to appreciate more than one genre of music.”
Speaking about her own musical diversity, Steph explains she also listens to opera, old jazz, and even some country. “I grew up around some shitty genres of music. I think the Space Jam soundtrack was maybe the only cool music I listened to with my dad.”With exception , Stephanie’s grandmother is credited for her appreciation of the “classics”, having been given the chance to listen and watch at a younger age. She explains her appreciation and respect for the music, movies, dance, and styles of a whole different era.
“Sinatra, Garland, New York New York, Meet Me in St Louis, Top Hat. My weak spot is old musicals. I wish they still made stuff like that. It was all so pure and beautiful. I even love just the sound that women had in their speaking and singing voices back then. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart. I can wear a dress; I have a sweet side… I just have a rough side too.”
Now familiar with the road with over 50 Durban shows worth of beaten sticks behind her, the prospect of getting back in the tour van is exciting to Stephanie. She explains that the best times ever are spent with the band.
“It’s honest, sometimes way too honest… and smelly.”
Video games and a legendary collection of cassettes accompany the band on the road. When I ask about the first tour she went on with Durban, the unlikely university town of Lethbridge, Alberta, came back as a memorable stop. Aside from the stick and poke tattoo that stays with Steph as a reminder of the visit. “We partied the hardest there.” The band will return to the home of Fist City, CKXU, and The Slice Bar and Grill, and maybe generate a few more road stories.
Steph remarked she would like people who have seen her play before to come see her now, remarking on how much better she has become, and how much more fun she is having. I ask if in her relatively short playing career if she has ever frozen on stage or dropped a beat.
“I think drumming becomes instinctive” she says. “I don’t freeze, because that tells me I’m not into what I’m doing.”
As one to make eye contact with an audience, Steph is conscious of the fact that a crowd will only connect and react with energy if you are putting out energy.
“You can be the best musician in the world but be so lame to look at. Give me some spit and blood and some pure rock and roll.”
That same drive follows Steph into the studio, appearing now on multiple Durban recordings. She prefers a “live off the floor” sound to everything she plays, admitting she would have trouble laying down or playing to a track.
Her dream show, at the local venue Logan’s, is seeing her best friend in the crowd, all of her friends, family, “the cutest boys ever” and anyone else who wanted to have a good time and hang out. “Logan’s is like family. “
The purest gifts are sometimes the ones wrapped in the simplest paper. In two years, a set of drums, the perfect fit for a band, an indie label, and the road ahead have offered much for Stephanie to embrace.
“Each year I get so much happier, learn more, do so much more and meet more people. Enjoy your life and have some fun. If I’m not having fun then I’m not there.”
Even as a relatively new drummer I asked what advice Steph would give to a girl starting where she was just two years ago.
“Play. Don’t wait some ten plus years. Get yourself a shitty kit, figure it out and just do it.”
By John Carlow for Tom Tom Magazine
© All images Finding Charlotte Photography