Double Feature: Ramona Gonzalez and Allison Smith of Nite Jewel

NITE JEWEL_ANGEL CEBALLOS_ Tom Tom Magazine

Beatmaker, producer, synthplayer and bandleader Ramona Gonzalez, aka Nite Jewel, does it all. She’s evolved tremendously since 2008 when she unleashed her trademark sound: hazy drugged out bedroom pop recorded on 8-track cassette. Since then, she’s collaborated with everyone from Peanut Butter Wolf to Julia Holter, and performed the entire Kraftwerk album “Computer World.” Her new album “One Second Of Love,” out now on Secretly Canadian, sheds some of those smoky layers to reveal a more slickly-produced sound. This maturation is especially evident when it comes to her drum production, which was influenced by 80s pop such as Prince and Sade. TTM caught up with her at her DJ gig in Brooklyn to talk about beat production, wanky vs. minimal drums, and religious experiences evoked by her new drummer Allison Smith, whom we also happened to interview in this issue.   

NITE JEWEL_ MATTHEW SCOTT_ Tom Tom Magazine

Tom Tom Magazine: Where do you get the drum sounds you use on your new album “One Second of Love”? How do you put them all together and which programs do you use? 
Ramona Gonzalez: I have a library of drum samples that come from both drum machines and live drum kits that I pull from. I produce everything with my partner Cole. He uses Ableton Live and I use Logic. I’ll start with an idea for the drums on a song, for example, “She’s Always Watching You.” I wrote all the drums in Logic and he’ll take them and refine them in Ableton.

So for “She’s Always Watching You,” you started that song with the drums? 
Yeah, drums and Clavinet. It was the most fun thing to write drum-wise ever. Cole described it as one long drum solo because there are lots of breaks, messed-up timing, and weirdly-structured patterns.

What does that do for the song?
It’s kind of selfish! I am doing the most wanky shit ever. If you can make this style of drumming palatable for a listener who is not into like Prog or whatever, that is an achievement. I think we did that.

So is it the drummer’s role not to be wanky? 
Well, I think that what’s most popular right now is Euro dance and disco which is basically snare on the 2 and 4 and really simple. Wanky drums are not in vogue right now. So in that sense it’s sort of against the grain. It’s not super listener-oriented because people aren’t used to hearing that kind of stuff right now.

How has your drum production evolved from your past records “Good Evening” and “Am I Real?” 
On “Good Evening” we only used drum loops. We sampled beats and looped them, similar to what a hip-hop producer would do. I used to have this Italian keyboard called an Elka–it was a one man band keyboard where you could program drums and play bass and top synth all at once. Some of the songs were drum loops from that keyboard and some of the songs were drum loops from a Roland drum machine. It wasn’t until later records like “Am I Real” and this new record that I started actually making long drum patterns and drum compositions.

What influenced that evolution?
It was influenced by what I was listening to at the time. During “She’s Always Watching You,” I was listening to alot of Yes and Prince. I was obsessed with making something rhythmically challenging that still feels good. Whereas on “Mind and Eyes,” that was my Steely Dan and AOR  obsession playing out. That was another song where drums and vocals come first.

In contrast to “She’s Always Watching You,” there’s a simplicity to the drums on “One Second of Love.” Do you want to talk about how that drum beat came about?
Originally it was just a bass part made on a Korg MS-20 and sent through a sequencer, and we just jammed on that. Then we brought in a jazz drummer to play live drums over that song for 12 minutes and we recorded that. We took those recorded drums, chopped them up, and laid them out on a grid. So the result doesn’t sound so natural but in fact they were played live originally.

Was it a conscious choice to make a simple drum beat for that song?
That song was originally complicated but we kept stripping and stripping it down.

Why? 
Well originally I didn’t want to strip it but after conversations with Cole we consciously decided it would be more of a dance track if it was stripped down.

The simplicity of it is what makes it a catchy dance track…
Exactly.

Do you think there is a drum machine or a program that defines the kind of music you are making?
Lately i have been using a lot of Neptunes’ samples and I use their drum sounds a lot. I am not sure if I would say it defines my sound though. Alternatively, there are recorded samples that I use, for example a Ludwig Black Beauty snare recorded with a certain kind of mic in a certain room. It’s a combination of those live drum sounds that are recorded pretty perfectly with other drum machine samples that I am into.

So you see yourself as a drum collage artist?
I think everybody who does drum programming has to collage. If you stick with one drum machine, you’re going to sound like that drum machine. You have to layer stuff a lot to make it unique. Sampling from vinyl is cumbersome so I prefer to use these libraries that I already have access to.

Is there a dream artist you would want to make a drum beat for?
I’d like to make a beat for a rapper. I’ve been listening to this Schoolboy Q record which I really like. I listen to a lot of different rap. It would be really awesome to make a sick ass beat you know with a little synth and something really catchy. I grew up listening to J Dilla, he’s a producer that really influenced me as well as MF Doom and Madlib.

Are there any female beatmakers that you’re really into right now?
There are a lot of women making beats that don’t advertise that. There are all of these women who just want to be viewed as a singer. My friend Julia Holter does all of her own drums but it’s part of her allure that she does everything herself. I really respect Julia’s work on her drums.

Historically and cross-culturally drums are tied to shamanism and religious experiences. Have ever had a religious experience evoked by drums?
My drummer, Allison Smith, evokes a religious experience in me. Any night that I have a woman providing the rhythm in my presence is like a religious experience. Female drummers respect the vocalist in a way that is uncanny and they vibe off you hard. It’s not about them showing off.

How did you find your drummer?
I auditioned her and she killed it. She’s super inspiring and I get really emotional with her playing. I’m excited to record her this Summer.

What’s next for Nite Jewel?
We’re touring Europe in July, we have some new videos in the works, and were going to Australia in August.

By Anna Luisa Petrisko
Top Photo: Angel Ceballos
Second Photo: Matthew Scott

                                                                                                          

Photographer Rozette Diaz_ Allison Smith_ Nite Jewel_ Tom Tom Magazine

Name Allison “Hi-Hat” Smith
Age 26
Hometown Baltimore, MD
Lives in Los Angeles, CA
Past Bands Unsound Foundation, Sarah Agajanian
Current Bands Nite Jewel
Day Job Percussion teacher for after school programs in LA
Favorite Food SUSHI
Drum set Yamaha Recording Custom
Hardware Yamaha 700 series
Pedal 1980s Yamaha single belt drive
Sticks ProMark 7A

Tom Tom Magazine: What drummers do you draw the most inspiration from?
Allison Smith: First and foremost: Carter Beauford. Then add some David Garibaldi, Phillip Fisher, Terri Lyne Carrington, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and the list goes on and on.

I noticed that you have drum tattoos. What do they mean?
I have two. One is a snare drum with my idol’s initials and the other is (in percussion clef) a sixteenth note triplet followed by a half note, which is a drum intro I like.

What was it like taking from Terri Lyne and going to Berkleee?
She is amazing. Simple as that. My first lesson with her I had to be real and let her know I was a huge fan and very scared to be taking lessons from her. She was very cool about it and the rest of my sessions with her were so relaxed and fun. She helped me with my focus and discipline behind and in front of the kit, and I thank her for that.

How is it playing with Nite Jewel & what can we expect in the future from this project?
I love Nite Jewel. This has been the biggest learning curve for me because I have never had to incorporate technology (I play a percussion pad and trigger computer tracks) into my kit before. I definitely dig it. And it helps to have such a stripped down kit. I can’t complain with having to set up just kick, snare, and hat each night.

What’s up next for Nite Jewel?
A European tour and maybe some one off shows in LA.

What are your long-term drumming goals?
Learn more, practice more, play more.

What is your favorite drum solo?
Max Roach’s hi-hat solo.

 

By Liv Marsico
Photo by Rozette Diaz

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