Lifetime Achievement: The Diverse, Idiosyncratic Output of Kevin Drumm

Kevin Drumm

Inset Photo by Peter Gannushkin courtesy of  DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET

 

In our Lifetime Achievement series, Bandcamp Daily takes a deep dive into the work of artists with a staggering number of releases to their name.

Before submitting this story, I checked in on Kevin Drumm’s Bandcamp page, in case the Chicago-based avant-garde musician had released any new music over the course of my writing. It wouldn’t have been surprising if he had: throughout his nearly 30-year career, Drumm has released over 150 titles under his own name (he’s issued seven album-length recordings this year already) that showcase a wide variety of approaches to electronic and experimental music production. His swelling Bandcamp page has been quietly active since 2013 and now boasts a staggering 103 titles.

Drumm’s embrace of Bandcamp makes sense given his roots in the ’90s underground. While several of his older recordings came out on noteworthy labels like Editions Mego and Hospital Productions, many others were self-released on tape or CD-R in minuscule editions and distributed at shows or through the mail. On his Bandcamp page, Drumm shares sounds that may not be as fastidiously recorded as classic albums like Sheer Hellish Miasma (2002) or Imperial Distortion (2008). (I should note: each of those is extreme in its own way; Sheer Hellish Miasma—true to its name—is marked by ear-splitting waves of guitar- and computer-generated noise, and Imperial Distortion is comprised of clean, quiet, cavernous suites.) But part of the fun of Drumm’s page is the other stuff: computer music he recorded last week, limited-run CD-Rs, never-released live recordings, new versions of old tracks.

Sonically, these odds and ends gravitate toward the poles set by Sheer Hellish Miasma and Imperial Distortion, i.e., they’re either noisy or sedate. Two uploads from 2018, Blocking and Final Protracted Spillings, attest to that dichotomy: the former is a jagged trip Drumm recorded in May, while the latter is two tracks of smooth ambient music recorded in March and April. The releases are indicative of Drumm’s Bandcamp oeuvre, not only for their sonic extremity and quick turnaround from recording to release, but also for the way they foreground process and best listening practices. Blocking comes with a short description of how it was recorded “live” on a red-eye flight; Final Protracted Spillings, meanwhile, like many others, comes with listening instructions: “Speakers and low volume please.” Some, like 2014’s wider-released Trouble, are even more specific: “suggested stereo system volume setting 4.” For 2012’s Dying Air Drumm recommends, “Play this on a stereo and go into another room while listening.”

The six releases highlighted below are hardly comprehensive, but they begin to demonstrate the diverse, idiosyncratic character of Drumm’s recorded output over the last 20-plus years, with a focus on music that may have gone unheard were it not for Drumm’s extensive use of this here platform. The releases show off his flexible attitude toward recording and distribution, and the different ways he continues to test himself, his equipment, and his listeners.

Live 1995 (Somewhere in Chicago) (1995/2014)

Recorded when Drumm was in his mid-20s, two years before his first proper full-length release, Live 1995 offers a previously unreleased, 24-minute track that’s looser than much of Drumm’s subsequent output. The track’s title, “Your Guitar Is Prepared…But You Aren’t!,” refers to the artist’s early-career instrument of choice, prepared guitar, and betrays the smirking sense of humor that crops up in his Bandcamp descriptions. On the muddy recording, fragmented, semi-melodic patterns bubble up into the mix, but Drumm cuts or distorts them before they become too iterative. A sharp hum powers the piece’s second half, foreshadowing the thick walls of sound that define much of Drumm’s later work.

Split with Pita (2001)

Kevin_Drumm_by-'Peter-Gannushkin-600

Drumm has deep roots in the Chicago music scene and has played with local luminaries such as Jim O’Rourke and Jeff Parker, among many others, but his musical network extends across the globe. One of Drumm’s close foreign associates is Austrian musician Peter Rehberg, who operates Editions Mego and records as Pita. Drumm and Rehberg’s split, released by BOXmedia, a Chicago-based label run by the musician Brent Gutzeit, showcases Drumm’s ability to collage non-musical acoustic sounds with electronic noise. His three short tracks are marked by atmospheres that refer to their titles. “2 (Built In Mic)” ends with an unexpected bit of sampled dialogue (“It’s got a built-in mic, it’s right on top of the screen”), while “I’ll Never Go To Mass Again” rides the low sigh of what might be a church organ.

VOYCES (2014)

The long chronological jump here, from 2001 to 2014, has nothing to do with the pace or quality of Drumm’s musical output during those years. It simply has to do with the fact that, since he started using Bandcamp, Drumm has given listeners a generous look into his creative process, releasing all manner of outtakes and experiments, dozens of excellent recordings dating back to 2013. VOYCES  is an extended version of a 10-minute cassette that Drumm self-released in 2014 (60 Minute Relief does something similar, extending Drumm’s 2012 album Relief). This version of VOYCES features an abrasive plane of noise that slowly shimmers and gets louder across its 20-minute runtime. Drumm suggests you “Play it loud”; doing so is apt to provide an ecstatic experience, perhaps less available on the original cassette.

Primate (2014)

Drumm’s Bandcamp page reveals a fairly inscrutable approach to album artwork. Few of the covers display any text, and the images—a melange of crude drawings, close-cropped romantic etchings, and rough snapshots of instruments, nature, animals, et al.—tend neither to relate to the album’s title nor to betray anything about the music. The self-released Primate is one exception: its cover is graced with a drawing, on lined paper, of an ape. Yet Primate’s cover-title connection doesn’t seem to bleed into the music. Its two tracks, “Primate A” and “Primate 2,” were recorded with “analog sources” and OS 8.6, according to Drumm, and they test various sonic extremes. The first sounds like an air compressor run through a lineup of distortion effects; in the second, a searing high-frequency tone and a mid-range buzz split apart, staging a conversation that increases in intensity for 18 and a half minutes.

Spectral Gaunts I (2016)
Spectral Gaunts II 
(2016)

Spectral Gaunts, a two-part release with both parts recorded in March 2016 in Chicago and self-released in the subsequent weeks, is slow and almost impossibly quiet. For “Part 1,” Drumm writes: “Speakers please. Placement- Where the low end is.” In this case, his instructions are imperative, as it’s difficult to hear Spectral Gaunts at all through laptop speakers (mine, at least). Throughout the first part’s 17 minutes, a wandering higher-pitched hum pokes out here and there from an appropriately low baseline. It’s interesting that “Part 2”—which is similarly quiet—comes with a note saying, “Suggested Volume setting: 3/4,” as opposed to 4/4. Many of Drumm’s recent recordings present exercises in close, patient listening; they challenge you to strain your ears, to hear (or mishear) things you otherwise wouldn’t.

Horizontal (2018)

Horizontal is Drumm’s most recent release. Recorded in Chicago from May to July of this year, the album comprises four pieces that range from 10 to 45 minutes long. All four are extremely quiet as well, but they possess more straightforward musicality, even beauty, than Spectral Gaunts. On “I” and “III,” full-bodied, elegiac drones slowly accrue potential energy, drawing the listener in as they play. “IV,” the longest piece, is more dynamic: the lead tone here ripples and sways, its timbre alternately suggesting church organ, brass, and the kosmische musik of ’70s West Germany. Listen with “Speakers please.”

-Joe Bucciero

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