Saying that a band makes “feel-good” music is so corny, but it’s hard not to describe Oakland/Berkeley, CA band the Splinters without mentioning this aspect of their songs. With riot grrrl remnants and ’60s garage charm, the Splinters’ toe-tapping tunes are completely catchy, and we love it.
Perhaps most notably, the band looks like they are having a complete blast on stage with clanky percussion driving each number. Drummer Courtney Gray is a joy to watch at the kit: energetic, on-time, and completely animated. Lauren Stern rocks the crap out of a tambourine, and guitarist Caroline Partamian jams alongside Gray on the floor tom in various songs, all while lead singer/guitarist Ashley Thomas strums away up front as each member contributes to sweet vocal harmonies.
Just in time for their first release, 7-inch “Splintered Bridges” (Aug. 1 on Double Negative Records), Tom Tom Mag caught up with drummer Courtney Gray to discuss picking up drums again after years of not playing, and using those toms to “set the mood” (bow chicka bow!).
Name: Courtney Gray
Hometown: Ojai, CA
Currently Lives in: San Francisco, CA
Past bands: The Skullfuckers (Misfits cover band)
Current bands: The Splinters
Day job: High School Teacher
“Physically and emotionally, I would never choose any other instrument for myself. Playing drums is just the BEST feeling.” –Courtney Gray
Tom Tom Magazine: How long have you been playing drums? Why did you start – and select drums instead of any other instrument?
Courtney Gray: So, the first time I started playing drums, I was about 13-years-old. My older brothers had bought a cheap drum-set and taught me how to play it, and then I got better than they did, so they decided to just stick to the guitar, and we created a pretty sick Blink 182 / Nirvana cover band, but I stopped playing like a year later, and started playing again recently when my college friends [at UC Berkeley] and I decided to start a Misfits cover band.
Tom Tom Magazine: Why did you stop?
Courtney Gray: I stopped because I was really young at the time, and it was basically a fun hobby to do with my brothers, and once I started socializing at school more, I got distracted.
TTM: After such a long gap of not playing – was it difficult to pick it up again? What were some of the challenges there?
CC: It actually wasn’t that difficult. I mainly only knew basic beats and punk beats, so just playing Misfits songs was pretty simple. It ended up being like hopping on a bicycle again, but the one challenge was stamina: My stamina was really low at first, and my forearm would get really tired really fast after only one song. So, it would be hard to play a lot of songs in a row, which was frustrating, and the creative aspects were also challenging, like coming up with fills or finding my own style, etc.
TTM: So how did you teach yourself to play? Do you think that playing covers and being in cover bands originally was a good way to start?
CC: Definitely! Especially when you’re that young, and you don’t have a clue about theory and whatnot. Just listening to songs in my headphones and duplicating the beats and fills was really helpful, and when you’re at such a beginner level, you don’t even know where to begin and what options are out there, so each song you duplicate is like a mini drum lesson
TTM: And what about punk-style beats? What draws you to that?
CC: I was into really shitty punk when I was in junior high and high school. I liked the energy and fast pace of the music and was kind of a tom-boy – no pun intended – so I naturally would cover punk songs and then had that as a foundation for myself. Actually now though, I am not as drawn to punk-style beats as much. They’re starting to bore me. When we write new songs now, I’m more interested in trying to make “interesting” things happen and really explore the use of the toms rather than just slap on a punk beat.
TTM: Same here. It takes a while to really start getting creative with the toms, I think – especially the rack toms. What kind of kit do you play now?
CC: I recently got a new kit, but have to do some work on it before I can play it. It’s an old Gibson Slingerland (I think from the ’60s) – BEAUTIFUL sparkle champagne (Sorry, I have to brag about that), and it has two rack toms and one floor tom. I like toms. I was considering downsizing to just one rack tom, for the sake of convenience, but I don’t think I’ll be able to go through with it.
TTM: Explain your love for toms. What do you think they add to songs? ☺
CC: So, I also do art, like painting, drawing, etc, so sometimes I approach a song the same way I approach an art piece, and the toms are like that extra bit of texture that gives a piece more body and depth, and they can take the song in specific directions, tone-wise, and I love being able to do that. Also, sometimes our songs have like a progression of events, almost as if it’s a story, and the toms really help “set the scene” I guess you could say.
“I was into really shitty punk when I was in junior high and high school. I liked the energy and fast pace of the music and was kind of a tom-boy – no pun intended.” — Courtney Gray
TTM: Maybe you can give me an example of how your drum part “sets the scene” in a particular song?
CC: Okay, the song “Oranges:” The whole premise of the song is totally lesbo, even though none of us are gay, it was just a cute idea to make it a girl instead of a guy. Anyway, the song starts out by kind of introducing her, and during the intro I’m just on the toms doing a tribal-like beat. And to me, it kind of creates the vibe that she is this epic character that we’re starting to tell you about and she’s coming your way. Then there’s a part in the story about running into this girl where the narrator falls and the lyrics go, “fall fall fall, fall fall fall,” and at the point I’m doing a drum roll on just the snare that creates the effect as if someone is falling repeatedly and like tumbling away after she falls.
TTM: What is your favorite thing about being a drummer/playing the drums?
CC: Oh, it’s hard to pinpoint a favorite thing, but I would have to say first off, physically and emotionally, I would never choose any other instrument for myself. I’m a pretty emotional/intense/high-energy person, so playing the drums is just the BEST feeling. It’s a good release, and it feels more personal and intimate because of the level of intensity with which they’re played. I also tend to hit extra hard, because it’s that intense contact that feels so good, and so right.
TTM: And what is the most challenging thing about drumming?
CC: Of course, just wanting to be better or more advanced than you are – like having all of these things you want to do, but not being technically equipped to do them, and then the frustration that goes along with that. I’m also bad at doing the whole “practicing alone” thing in order to get better. It’s kind of intuitive for me, so I don’t really know the best way to go about like formally improving, you know? But I’m starting to brainstorm things that I want to start doing. Like my friend was showing me all these different types of “paradiddles,” and I’m going to just do those constantly, and then try harder ones, and harder ones, because it’s getting your muscle memory going that helps you improve, and getting your body to be comfortable with all those awkward sequences.
TTM: Who are some your favorite drummers?
CC: I’m not too keen on ALL of the drummers out there, and that’s definitely something I haven’t really gotten super obsessed about figuring out, but there are drummers that I technically admire. Like the drummer from the band Man Man [Pow Pow AKA Christopher Powell] is amazing and can do so many things at once, even down to playing a kazoo on key while doing a really complicated drum sequence. He’s just 100% rhythm when he plays, like his face makes the strangest expressions and when you watch him, he’s not just a dude sitting at a drum set, he’s a machine that’s a part of the drum-set.
TTM: And as a female drummer, have you experienced any sexism – ever get the “oh, they’re just a chick band” write-off? How do you deal with that?
CC: It always causes lots of hilarious conversations, or conflict. For example, we were talking amongst a big group of people we didn’t know at this bar, and this guy was like, “Hey, I really like your band! You’re really great! And I love how it’s all girls too, it’s so awesome.” It was a really nice comment, and we were really flattered and didn’t read into it or anything, and then this girl standing nearby got really offended and was like, “What’s that supposed to mean?! All-girl band? What does that have to do with anything… like what if they were a . . . transgender girl band?! What then?!” Essentially, we’re comfortable with being an all-girl band, and aren’t like on the defense or anything, and are really into the jokes that go along with all of it, though
“Sometimes I approach a song the same way I approach an art piece, and the toms are like that extra bit of texture that gives a piece more body and depth.” –Courtney Gray
TTM: Let’s hear all about the Splinters’ new 7-inch, “Splintered Bridges,” just released (Aug 1) on Double Negative Records in Oakland, CA. Where did you record? What was the recording process like? What were some of the challenges in tracking the drums?
CC: Well, the two songs we ended up choosing to put on it were recorded in two separate places by two different people. The song “Splintered Bridges,” was recorded at our practice studio Soundwave, and the other one, “Sorry,” was recorded in a home studio of another friend of ours. Both recording processes were amazing! The one at Soundwave was an all-day affair – the guys recording for us were grrreat. They were really open to what we wanted and were extremely patient. We recorded from like noon to 2 am that day. The other one in the home studio was just a relaxing Saturday – drank beer and limeade, ate tacos, laughed a little, recorded a little – it was a good day. We never really encountered too many problems tracking the drums. The only challenge that we came across for the drums was capturing the right essence for certain songs, because they don’t translate in recordings like they do live.
TTM: What’s next for the Splinters? What are your goals as a band, and how hard is it to realize “making it” with a day job/school/rent to pay, etc?
CC: Good question. We actually have a pretty set idea of how things are going to go/how we’d want them to go in the next year. One of our guitarists/singers, Caroline Partamian, was supposed to go to NYU this fall for grad school, but she ended up deferring for the band. So we actually have exactly a year to “do stuff.” One of our goals was a 7-inch, which we have officially accomplished. Yow! We’re planning on recording again in September to work towards our next goal of having a full-length album. Our tambourine player, Lauren Stern, might end up learning how to shred at the bass in the near future. Our other guitarist/singer, Ashley Thomas, might end up rapping in a few more songs, since we found out that’s her secret talent. In addition to that, we’re all creative, so we always like to dedicate time to creative Splinters-related projects, like T-shirts, artwork, videos. It’s fun to do those kinds of things yourself instead of having other people do them for you.
Right now we all have full-time day jobs (booo!), so making time for practice and other band-related stuff can be pretty challenging, especially when we play a lot of shows in one specific time period. There are weeks where my life is literally work and band, work and band, but it’s a great time and it’s worth it. The band is one of the main things that’s keeping me from going totally nuts from this new post-college “job life.”
More info on the Splinters:
–Melanie B. Glover