Beating Hearts and Beating Drums in the NJ Scene

Colleen Crowley Ambrose_ Cheri Parrag_ Tom Tom Magazine_ female drummers

“Is it bad I’m more excited about our record release than our wedding day?” Michael asked me a few weeks before our wedding.

I smiled as I replied, “I’m not sure, but I guess not since I feel the same way.”

I am now Michael’s wife and drummer.  In my haze of newlywed bliss, I’m equally pleased and baffled at how we went from two angry kids just looking for fun to this swirl of matching drumheads, couches, and dinnerware.

I always said I wanted to meet a man who could open my world. An avid traveler, I assumed I would meet and marry someone from Malawi or Guyana or Pocatello. I never guessed I would meet a man who grew up six miles from me: someone who was at the same shows and band competitions and stores in the mall. Furthermore, I never guessed this man would open my world in exactly the way I needed.

I once divulged to Michael how I took drum lessons when I was seven years old then quit hastily to play the saxophone to be like my older sister. Maybe there was deep longing in my eyes or some soft whisper of disappointment in my voice that I wasn’t a brave and self-righteous seven-year-old, or maybe Michael just has a good memory, but I’m glad he remembered what I said. I’m even more glad he did something about it.

A few years after we started living together, I found myself stuck in a corporate job all wrong for me. I was surrounded by passionless cubicles and meaningless deadlines, a taupe version of despair. Sensing I was too young to give myself completely to my alarm clock and business casual, my now-husband Michael set up his recent eBay find, a blue sparkle 60’s Norma toy drum kit in my creative space. Like a skeptical dog with a new toy, I inspected the drum kit, circled it, was aware of its presence, but for the most part I left it alone. One day after a wretched time in the office, I less-than-politely asked Michael to move the Norma to the basement, blaming it for being in my way. I think we both knew I was just frustrated with longing.

Michael patiently moved the kit to the basement, and very soon after I asked him to show me the proper way to hold a drumstick. He handed me a pair of sticks and the whole world changed.

Six months later, Michael was starting a new band.  Neither of us had any intention of playing together yet; Michael was a ‘real-deal’ gigging, touring musician with a battered road case and black cotton socks on his rider. Lucky for me, the bassist, Erin Hays, showed up a week earlier than Mike expected. He didn’t want to waste Erin’s time so he asked me to sit behind the drum kit. I fumbled my way through the first practice, and soon after I began studying from the patient Matt Lewis at Division Street Music in Somerville, NJ (http://www.divisionstreetmusic.com). With Matt’s kindness and expert knowledge, I’ve built my chops and confidence to keep playing music with Michael, Erin, and our new guitarist Marty Leahy in Les Trois Chaud.

Ultimately, Michael gave me the nudge I needed to return to myself. I’m no longer in a job I hate, ladies’ sportswear no longer litters my closet, and our first album was just released. I’ve fallen in love twice in my life: first to Michael, second to playing the drums. I’m grateful I can play what I love with the man I love, and I’m more grateful I’m building a life with a man who shares my passions and dreams.

Our future dreams are nothing without our roots in the NJ Scene. Our lives together started when we met while working at an all-ages rock club in central New Jersey. I was barely old enough to drink. Michael’s first words to me were, ‘doesn’t this band make you want to shoot yourself in the face with a bazooka?’ I replied with some semblance of ‘yeah they’re pretty bad,’ thus passing his test and winning his heart. Our first date was to a show. We played music on our wedding day. Clearly we wouldn’t be who we are as individuals or a couple without the ‘Scene’.

In the interest of accurately describing the NJ Scene and what it’s like making music with my love, I enlisted the help of two additional female drummers from New Jersey who have also met and play music with their partners ‘in the Scene.’ I included their answers in full interview style because, well, the answers are perfect as they are. I relate to so much of what they said, like Miranda’s well-placed Groucho Marx quote, and to Erin’s description of playing music with Marty. (And for the record, my answer to the last question is Outsider by the Ramones because I was always a marginal character in the Scene).

Miranda Taylor (MT below), plays the drums in Black Wine (http://blackwine.bandcamp.com/). Formerly in the surf-punk band The Hunchback, she married Jeff from The Ergs! and they play together in this incredibly tight three-piece. Miranda is not only a great writer and player with superb phrasing and a killer internal clock, she is a tasteful drummer and a just all-around nice person. In the interest of full disclosure, I might not even be playing drums out if it weren’t for Miranda’s positive influence. I have seen her play for years and from my perspective, Miranda isn’t a great girl drummer, she’s a great drummer who happens to be a girl. She doesn’t try to be overly girly or underly girly like some feel they ought to; she conducts herself as she is and I love her for it.  Black Wine is touring the country this summer with Brick Mower and their new record “Hollow Earth” is being released on July 3rd on Don Giovanni Records. They also played on a highly amusing episode of The Chris Gethard Show involving ‘The Milkshake of Death’ http://thechrisgethardshow.com/episodes/tv21/.

Erin Hays (EH below), is the bassist in Les Trois Chaud and I am lucky to say I play with her; she possesses impeccable self-awareness, professionalism, creativity, and understanding. Erin has one of the sharpest ears in music today and makes playing music what it should be: FUN.  Erin is the drummer for Sun Puddles (http://sunpuddles.bandcamp.com/), a post-grunge trip through all that is good about rock n roll. She not only writes the songs, but simultaneously plays and sings (and does both extraordinarily well). Her beats are unique, complex, and well-executed. Sun Puddles just completed their first full-length and is currently label-shopping. Erin also has a side project called Clever Girl (http://clevergirlnj.bandcamp.com/) with her boyfriend Marty Leahy (guitarist for Les Trois Chaud). Clever Girl reminds me of going to shows when I was seventeen, which is ALWAYS a good thing.

I  (CCA below) am the drummer for Les Trois Chaud (https://www.facebook.com/lestroischaud). I grew up listening to my Mom’s 60’s pop records and draw a lot of inspiration from the grooves of Motown. I am a minimalist in both text and music. I play my Sonor piccolo 10′ tambourine snare whenever I can.

Les Trois Chaud will make you smile. They will send you to another place and time and remind you of why you starting loving music in the first place. Proud to be form and make songs about New Jersey, this trio will toss modern misconceptions and stereotypes out the window. And like New Jersey, there is no one way to describe Les Trois Chaud. Part folk, part old country, part straight-up, driving-with-your-windows down rock n’ roll, Les Trois Chaud is a band you’ll remember. Les Trois Chaud’s first album, Songs of Home: Volume 1, was recorded during a blizzard and was released digitally on June 5th, 2012 on Mint 400 records. It will be in record stores on vinyl July 10, 2012. The band also appears on the live compilation “One Hour From Anywhere”  (https://www.facebook.com/onehourfromanywhere), released digitally and on cassette June 15, 2012. Les Trois Chaud will be recording Songs of Home: Volume 2 this summer.

CCA: I would love it if you could define ‘the NJ Scene’ in your own words. What does it mean to you? 

MT: I am, like Groucho Marx, skeptical about any group that would include me…but having said that, it is both an enduring and important part of my life. It waxes and wanes like any other scene, but some part of it always seems to be trudging along and I like that. My favorite part about it is that it includes an actual variety of genres and sounds and is pretty anti-bullshit. As in: it really is about the actual music being made as opposed to say, the outfits or haircuts the band is sporting at the moment

EH: The NJ Scene has always been a family in my eyes.  It is a bunch of really good friends coming together to showcase their talents and music and just have a good time doing it.  Whether you’re in a Hardcore, Punk, Pop, Indie Rock, or Americana band, people have always been very welcoming and enthusiastic about playing shows, going to shows, promoting shows for each other.  Everyone that I have met over the years has inspired me in some way and I am very thankful for that.

CCA: What is it like making and playing music with Marty/Jeff? 

MT: (Playing with Jeff) is really fun. He’s a great songwriter, guitarist, and singer and playing with him is kind of an honor to me in some ways. I love trying to come up with the best fitting, most complementary drum part to whatever song he has. That process is my favorite!

EH: Playing music with (Marty) has been a blast!  He is very talented and well he pushes me to be a better musician and think outside the box.  At times, it is a bit intimidating since I think he is one of the best songwriters I know.  Sometimes, I think I can’t compete with his songs, but then I remember we write differently and that’s what makes our songs work.  We each have different ideas and perspectives and this keeps our songwriting fresh and interesting to one another, and I hope to the listener. I am grateful for him being in my life and cant wait to see what kind of music we will make in the foreseeable future.

CCA: What made you start playing the drums?

MT: Me and my cousin Erin Taylor started a band called “Tainted Honey” in the summer of 1994. My mother let us use her acoustic guitar, which Erin played while she sang. For some reason we decided that I should hit a spackle bucket as a drum. That winter I got a real drum kit for Christmas.

EH: I’ve always wanted to play drums since I was a young gal.   Just thought they were a cool instrument and always looked really fun to play.  I finally had the opportunity to start playing a couple years ago due to Evan Kiel giving me his old drum set.  I’d like to thank him for making my drumming dreams come true. Thanks Evan!

 

CCA: Did you always want to play the drums?

MT: I wanted to be a ballerina, actually! But I am a better drummer. I’m not sure why it was drums in particular though. I know that I liked listening to what the drums were doing in songs. I liked Roger Taylor from Queen, my first favorite band. Later I loved Tobi Vail, Dave Grohl, Patty Schemel, and Caroline Rue (Hole’s first drummer), Ringo Starr, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, and lots others. I would watch and listen, and then try and play along to songs. I guess the drums just seemed to make some sense to me.

EH: For sure!  My mom used to play drums when she was younger and actually taught me some rudiments.  I used to carry around her drum sticks and practice those occasionally.  When my parents asked what instrument I would like to play in Middle School (I had to choose an instrument other than Violin to be in Marching Band), I said I wanted to play drums.  We really didn’t have much room in the house for a drumset and since they are really loud as well, my Mom vetoed them.  I chose the clarinet instead, but always had the drums in the back of my mind.

CCA: How does playing the drums compare to the other instruments you play? (you can be honest)

MT: I am much more comfortable playing the drums. Again, they make sense to me. It is more strenuous. You sweat more.

EH: It is definitely the hardest instrument for me, I think.  Well, maybe the guitar is a bit harder.  Bass is definitely the easiest since I’ve been playing it for so long.  I must say though, drumming is definitely getting easier for me the more I play.  It’s true what they say, practice makes all the difference.  Two years ago I was able to play one simple beat pretty mediocre, but now I am able to play an array of different beats sort of well.  I am still far off from being an awesome drummer but I think I keep time pretty well, which is a definite plus.  I like to keep things simple, but throw in a flourish here or there.  Nothing too crazy since I am still learning.  I also have to sing while I play which is something that can make playing more difficult beats, well, more difficult.  This is why I stick to simple beats for now.  I am trying to work on doing both.  Hopefully, as I progress I will get better at doing that.

CCA: For a bonus fun last question: what punk song title describes you best?

MT: (said to her husband): What punk song best describes me?

Jeff:(pause)  “Neat Neat Neat”

MT: ah yes, because I love to clean.

EH: I think “HAG” by the Breeders best describes me.  I’ve been around for a while and well, I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I am turning into the scene’s crazy cat lady.

By Colleen Crowley Ambrose

Jeff Zorn is a photographer in New Jersey. His work can be found at zornography.com

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