Interview and Illustrations by Lola Wilson
Allan Wilson grew up in Sacramento, California, where he helped found the seminal dance punk band,(!!!, Chk Chk Chk), in the late ’90s. His daughter Lola was born in 2001. In 2005, they moved north to Portland, Oregon. Lola, who often illustrates for Tom Tom, is a high school junior who loves to draw, paint, sing, and eat salad. Allan currently plays with Secret Drum Band, which is putting out its first LP this summer. They live in a big communal house in Portland with Lola’s mom, three other people, and three cats.
Lola: Hi, Dad! So what made you wanna become a drummer?
Allan Wilson: Well, I’ve played music in school since I was a kid—jazz bands, concert bands, pep bands—and then in high school, I played in the marching band. At first, I was marching with a huge bari sax, but then I had an opportunity to play in the drum corps, which I thought would be even cooler. So I switched to playing bass drum. It was a good introduction because there wasn’t much technique involved in playing that drum apart from doing some mallet rolls now and then.
Around the same time (the early ’90s), I had started playing saxophone in a ska band. But I wanted to play set; it seemed like so much fun. So, I bought my own drumset from an ad in the classifieds. I think it was like $250 with all the stands and cymbals. I think it even came with a bunch of sticks! I set it up in a spare bedroom at your great-grandpa’s house. A couple times a week, I would drive over there and play, try to learn my favorite beats. I was 16 or 17, listening to a lot of punk and Goth, so I’d try songs by the Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Subhumans & the Dead Kennedys; stuff like that. My favorite drummer was Budgie (of the Banshees), and so I’d try to learn lots of his beats. He’s actually still one of my favorites.
Was Opa (great-grandfather) into you playing drums at his house?
It was really sweet that he let me, and he probably liked that I had a reason to come over to visit every week. I think it was his way of adapting to what I wanted to do at that age, in order to be able to spend time with me.
Aww. That is sweet.
But yeah, that’s how I started drumming on my own, on the set. There were a couple times when I tried to join bands as the drummer, but I wasn’t quite good enough yet. When I was 20, my friend Nic asked me to form a band with him and a bunch of friends, and that became the band that I toured and recorded with for almost 20 years (!!!, Chk Chk Chk). Initially, I was recruited to play sax, but as time went on and our sound evolved, I started playing percussion, too. Later on, I started playing set. And I’m still playing drums in 2017!
Okay Dad; calm down. You mentioned Budgie from the Banshees, but who are some of your other favorite drummers? Any women in there?
I love the drummer in Yo La Tengo (Georgia Hubley). She also tends to write my favorite songs of theirs. And speaking of the early ’90s, I was big fan of Heather Dunn’s drumming in Tiger Trap. She played so ferociously, she looked like she was always on the verge of falling off her drum stool. Also in the last few years, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to play and record, and even tour, with three amazing women in Secret Drum Band: Lisa Schonberg, Heather Treadway (both ex-Explode Into Colors), and Sara Lund (ex-Unwound).
Nice. So . . . how do you feel about feminism? (Laughs.)
It’s pretty cool. Pretty cool idea.
Okay, specifically, how do you think you’ve changed your stance on it? Like, do you feel like you were different as a younger person when it comes to how you feel about equal opportunities for all genders?
Sure, definitely. So in the early ’90s, around the time of the advent of riot grrrl, there were a lot of preconceptions in the punk scene (and in society generally) about what was appropriate behavior for women and girls. How society considered and treated women and girls started to be questioned in a really direct, in-your-face way. The discussion was changing a lot. Those felt like radical times, and I could feel the righteous anger of many of the women around me. Sometimes it was really hard. You’d say the wrong thing, and get chewed out. People would be really angry at you. I guess it’s not so different now, actually! It was kind of like growing pains; we, as a scene, were trying to figure out how to make adjustments to our thinking, to understand what the ideas and goals of feminism via riot grrrl were, what the “new acceptable” was. Of course, those ideas and goals and expectations have continued to evolve since then, but that was the first big push in that direction during my lifetime. I think that thoughtful men have really had to face their gender privilege, examine how it manifests, and to check it everywhere.
I wasn’t around at that time, of course, but it seems that while there had been women drummers before, it was much more of a rarity than it is now. Not saying that riot grrrl was like a “women drumming” movement, but obviously that was part of it, letting women be more assertive or aggressive in music and playing a wider variety of instruments.
That’s true, and yeah, women did make up a lot of earlier punk bands that predated riot grrrl. In a way, you could say that riot grrrl was like the second wave of a musical feminist movement that had included the Slits, the Raincoats, the Runaways, Siouxsie, X-Ray Spex, Pretenders, and many others. It seems a lot more common now to see women behind the drumset than when I was a teen. Although I’m not sure that the Portland scene really represents what’s happening in the country at large. Portland’s a weird cultural bubble.
Personally, living in that bubble, drumming seems like a pretty female-dominated art form. The majority of drummers I can think of are women. And most of the young bands I see, the drummers are women.
Wow, really? I’m surprised!
When I think of drummers I know, I think of Lisa Schonberg, Heather Treadway, Elizabeth Venable (Sad Horse and Fronjentress). You’re really one of the only guy drummers I can think of in town.
That’s really interesting. I think that in Portland there’s a higher ratio of female to male drummers than in other places in the country.
You still think most drummers are men in Portland?
Definitely. But it makes sense that you’re seeing so many female drummers. I think that our community especially has been influenced by Tom Tom and Rock & Roll Camp for Girls. You went to Rock & Roll Camp!
I did. (Laughs.)
Remember when we played in the Monkees cover band last year (at the annual Sacramento Halloween Show)?
That was great. We played a good show. Wish we could have done it this year, too.
You sang all the songs and played keys, but you also played drums on one song, right?
Yeah, in “Randy Scouse Git,” that really crazy song. I love performing! I wish I had more opportunities to do it. How was it to play with me in a band?
It was so fun and really nice to work on a musical project with you and your mom. I loved learning the songs together. It takes a lot of preparation to get ready to perform, but it’s such rewarding work.
Do you ever wish we had formed a little family band?
There were times that I was into that idea. A few years ago, I sent you a video on Facebook of a dad and his two small kids covering a Depeche Mode song, super cute video, and your response was something like, “Cool, but we’re not gonna do anything like this.”
I remember that. (Laughs.)
I didn’t press the issue after that.
This article was featured in the Nepotism issue of Tom Tom. Purchase it online.