Words by by Kiran Gandhi
Photos by JP Marcus
I got my start playing drums for M.I.A. and Thievery Corporation, but over the past few years, I have been writing and producing my own music as Madame Gandhi. I am excited to share an interview I did recently with Ale Robles, a drummer who toured in my band last fall when we went on the road opening for Ani DiFranco’s West Coast Rise Up Tour.
I first saw Ale play at SXSW 2017, where she was drumming for Le Butcherettes. First, it was lead singer Teri Gender Bender who caught my eye. She pulled us into her world, screaming and crying and freaking out onstage, while she moved between keys, guitar, and lead vox. It was the punk rock project of my dreams, and their drummer was insane. I moved closer to the stage to fully experience them live, and realized the drummer was a girl. My night was made.
Ale was so fierce behind the drums as the backbone of the project, fully present in the moment, giving the instrument her entire love, focus, and energy. It was so inspiring. In my own project as Madame Gandhi, I had started the year off initially touring solo, where I would move between lead vocals, triggering sounds/electronics, and playing live drum sets. But as my project expanded, and I wanted to take a band on the road, I knew my personal dream was to recruit Ale to play live drum parts, while I was doing vocals. She was down. The whole dynamic of the show changed completely. I would start the first two songs drumming, but by the third song, Ale came on as a surprise and the rest of the show we would each switch on stage live and move between who plays the percussion rig up front and who plays the full kit. It was epic. I hope you enjoy my interview with her.
Kirin Gandhi: What do you think about when you are drumming? While practicing, while playing live?
Ale Robles: For the most part, I do the thinking beforehand then I get behind the drums and do it. I think about a lot of things, like if there’s something different in my setup, how comfortable I was playing during soundcheck, how good I could hear during soundcheck, etc. I just try to make mental adjustments before shows, so when I’m onstage, I can just be present, and enjoy it.
What’s your dream for your drumming?
This is a complicated question for me. I moved to Los Angeles five years ago with the ultimate dream of playing for Brody Dalle (the Distillers). But my dreams have shifted a bit: From playing with so many creative musicians, I’ve found that it has pushed me to want to write my own album, which it would have been crazy to think of five years ago. I want to collaborate with powerful women that move me and inspire me to find my authentic creative self. I’ve been touring with Le Butcherettes for a year, and we are about to release a new album, and I love every minute of it. I love the community, the fans, the environment, and most importantly, my bandmates.
What is your favorite gear? Brands? Size of drums? Tuning? Any electronics?
I play a DW drum kit at home, but I tour with a Ludwig drum kit. Those are my two favorite brands of drums. I use Istanbul cymbals (15”, 19”, 20”, 21”) Haram drum sticks (5A), and Aquarian drum heads.
“To be in a band with three people who I not only love but feel immensely inspired by is a true gift.”
How did you get so proficient at the drums? What was your practice ritual?
I was self-taught for so long until I moved to L.A. and went to MI, the Musician’s Institute. When I got there, I realized I was not as good as any of my classmates, mostly because a lot of them had been playing since they were kids. I actually started playing when I was 16, because that’s when I first had access to a drum kit. So the fact that I was falling behind in almost every assignment combined with the fact that I was one of four female drummers in the whole school drove me to develop a routine where I was practicing six to eight hours a day, apart from being a full-time drum student.
How do you balance your time between practicing and gigging? Do you ever practice just to practice with no end goal, song, or show dates in mind?
Although I should, I rarely practice just to practice. I mostly jam with other people, or record music. That’s my favorite way to practice, because I can get feedback, and also, I get to hear back what I play and judge for myself.
Do you feel you are good? Do you identify as a pro? If yes, what did that journey to get there look like? If no, why not?
I really don’t know. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t, but I honestly don’t think it matters that much. What matters is that I enjoy drumming so much, and there are people who appreciate my creativity and find some value in what I do. My journey has been a roller coaster. I’ve gone to feeling like I’m good to feeling like I’m not good enough, so I just stopped investing energy into that thought.
Do you have any insecurities with regards to your playing? If so, how do they affect your playing? How do you deal with them, not deal with them, or get rid of them?
Being exposed to so many amazing players, of course I have insecurities about my playing, but I rarely let them wear me down. I know the areas where I need to improve, and I work towards it. And that’s all I can do. Before I started touring with Le Butcherettes, I had major stage fright that even the thought of being onstage made me nauseous. I knew it was something that I needed to work on. After around my 15th show in a row with Le Butcherettes, I was over it. I consider it to be one of my greatest life accomplishments.
Can you speak about the intersection between drumming and spirituality?
To me, drumming is a healing experience in which one transcends the self; shifting between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Drumming to me is my form of meditation. It also is a good way to connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain. When I’m alone playing for hours trying to develop a groove from a rhythm, that’s where I find my comfort. So yeah, drumming is cool, I guess.
Your own project versus others’? Which do you prefer?
I love playing with other people. I love feeding off of each others’ energy and feeling the chemistry that makes a performance so intense. I also love writing alone. I enjoy the solitude and the focus it requires.
What is your favorite part of being a member of Le Butcherettes?
Teri [Gender Bender] is a force of nature. I remember seeing Le Butcherettes for the first time when one of my previous bands, the Menstruators, played a festival in 2015, and I was blown away. I became an instant fan. I was so moved and inspired by her performance. And the more I got to know her, the more drawn I was to her humbleness and creativity. I love playing music with people I admire and respect. So to be in a band with three people who I not only love but feel immensely inspired by is a true gift.
What was your favorite part of being on our tour opening for Ani DiFranco?
I think the message is extremely important, and it makes me feel very lucky to be part of a collective that empowers women and young girls. I really admire your talent and commitment to your cause, because not only does it inspire, it becomes a learning experience for all of us. Spending time and being onstage with four powerful women that excel at their craft gave me a lot of hope. The tour, from my experience, was filled with laughs, wisdom, and optimism, and that’s what I took home with me.
This was originally published in Tom Tom’s Spring issue. Read the full version here.