Hey Nate. What or who inspired you to start playing the drums at the age of 11?
My earliest and most immediate inspiration was my older brother; he played drums in high school band. I watched him play and began to mimic his setup and movements behind the kit. When I started playing on my own, my biggest inspirations were the drummers I saw in music videos and concerts on VHS. My dad had a big collection of vinyl and VHS concerts, so I listened and learned.
How did you learn to play the drums, after starting at such a young age?
The biggest tools for me were mimicry and listening. I studied and studied, listened and learned as much as I could by ear. I used my ears and my brain to guess what the drummers were doing, and did my best to copy them. I also used a boom-box to record myself playing. I’d listen back to my playing and compare the way I played to the way the drummers I idolized were playing. I’d try to get closer and closer.
Who instilled in you your interest in the rock and funk music that shaped your early years?
It was mostly about what was happening in the house. My brother was checking out The Police and Peter Gabriel, Steel Pulse, Genesis. He had a really varied taste in music. My mom was listening to traditional and contemporary gospel. My sister was listening to contemporary R&B of the time: Atlantic Starr, Loose Ends, Midnight Starr. My dad was into instrumental r&b or soul-jazz, which would later become so-called “smooth jazz”. His interest in the genre was around the golden age when artists like Grover Washington, David Sanborn, Quincy Jones and Bob James were making really beautiful, textured records.
Who were the drummers you looked up to within the funk and rock scenes?
There were so many! My biggest influences at the earliest stage were Omar Hakim who was playing with Sting, Will Calhoun of Living Colour, Stewart Copeland of The Police, and Sheila E who was playing with Prince at the time. I was also way into James Brown, so of course, I was checking out Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks. I also really liked the way Stevie Wonder played on his own records.
You developed a fondness for Jazz at a later age only? How did this come about?
The fondness for jazz was always there, but I didn’t really appreciate the greatness of jazz drummers until I was a teenager, and I discovered an album by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers called “Album Of The Year”. Such a great album and I loved the intensity of Blakey’s playing on it. I loved the groove in his swing. From that point, I discovered a couple of other albums with great drummers as well. Miles Davis’ 58 Sessions album with the great (and recently departed) Jimmy Cobb deeply influenced my relationship with the ride cymbal quarter note.
How do you feel the combination of these genres you were interested in, had a part in shaping your specific style of playing?
Everything I loved about the drums came down to sound and groove. From Omar to Jimmy Cobb, it was all about how they made the drums sound and feel with the music. When I listened to Omar’s playing, there was this ghost note language in the left hand that filled up the music in such a beautiful way. I really wanted to mimic that.
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On that topic, you have such a refreshing style of playing, fewer chops and more groove. Yet you still manage to make your grooves incredibly involved with different feels and modulations. Why do you feel you didn’t gravitate towards the Gospel chops styles of playing we see a lot nowadays?
Again, this is more of a product of my environment. I was raised AME (African Methodist Episcopal) and it’s a “quieter” church than most of the Baptist or Pentecostal church experiences in which a lot of musicians are raised. We didn’t have drums in church every Sunday; the drums only came out for special occasions. It wasn’t until later in my teenage years that I started playing at a Baptist church, and I started to learn the language of contemporary gospel drumming. Also, getting back to the idea of making sound and feel the most important parts of my playing, I’ve learned that the use of space is paramount to that. SO I’ve learned to use and appreciate a lot of silence and space in my playing.
You use some crazy modulations in your playing regardless of the styles or complexity of the music you are applying it to. How do you find the best times and or places to use these modulations and have them serve the music as well as they do?
A lot of my concepts around rhythmic modulation came from my time in Dave Holland’s quintet and Big Band. A few of the compositions, especially those written by (trombonist) Robin Eubanks, use rhythmic modulation as a compositional tool. The modulations serve as a way of telling a story, making a transition from one “chapter” to another. It also creates a lot of tension and “drama” in the music, as we listeners are trying to make sense of the rhythmic relationships. When I’m making these choices in real-time, I’m thinking about it like telling a story. I’m always thinking “when will this modulation be most effective?” or “how can I prepare the listener for the modulation, or how do I surprise them with it?”
You have an incredibly distinct sound to your playing, what do you personally feel attributed the most to your personality as an artist and more importantly the uniqueness of it?
I started programming music in my teens – I always had a fascination with MIDI sequencing and electronic composing. I think of ways to emulate the recorded and electronic drums sounds I hear, so I experiment with different ways of tuning and muting the drums to get the sonic flavour I’m looking for. This is an ongoing process, and the more I learn about recording, the more my sound and style evolves.
I love your use of single stroke three rolls and similar groupings to create grooves that are reminiscent of drum n’ bass patterns. Something I used to only expect from players like Jojo Mayer. Was there any intentional thought behind playing these types of grooves?
My rudimental approach to drumming is based in my experiences in marching band as a kid. I played concert percussion and participated in marching band all through my junior high and high school years and even into my freshman year in college. The building blocks of my approach to the drumset started with my marching band rituals; including rhythmic exercises, we would use to warm up before band practice. I still use some of those rituals today.
You studied media art and design. What inspired this choice?
After I started college, I realized that I wasn’t only interested in learning how to play and create music, I was also interested in learning how music is used in conjunction with other types of media, ie film, television etc. So I wanted to learn as much about songwriting, film composing and scoring as I could. I also studied advertising, and some of the concepts of messaging have been useful as I share my own music with the world.
How do you feel this choice influenced the rest of your career?
A lot of tools have been useful, especially in the social media age. I’ve learned a lot about how people use music, and the stories they attach to the music they love. I think people see music as a part of their identity, and they attach very personal stories and memories to the music that has shaped them.
During your studies, you started working with the great Betty Carter. Apart from this initial start to your career, what other artist have you worked with?
Betty was a huge, seminal influence on me (as well as many other musicians), and her Jazz Ahead program was a launching pad for me. She made me a part of a network of great musicians, including Jason Moran and Casey Benjamin, with whom I still have relationships. Dave Holland was another major influence on me as a musician, same with Ravi Coltrane, John Patittucci, Pat Metheny, as well as contemporary artists like Brittany Howard, Norah Jones and Childish Gambino. All of these artists have had an impact on my thinking as a creative.
Who are some of the most influential artists; with regards to your drumming and style development, you have worked with?
Again, I have to mention Betty Carter and Dave Holland as central figures for me. They were my biggest influences in terms of watching how music is made night after night all over the world. They taught me the value of consistency and discipline, two of the central principles I’ve taken with me into the bandleading phase of my career.
What do you feel is the biggest difference between being the drummer of a band and being the bandleader?
The biggest difference is the level of responsibility; when you’re a sideman, you just focus on showing up and doing the best job you can in service of the music. When you’re a leader, you have to think about all of the logistics that go into putting a show together: travel, cost, personnel, etc. And you still have to think about showing up and doing the best you can in service of the music (the difference being that the music you’re serving is your own!)
Tell us about your time with the Vulfpeck gang (The Fearless Flyers). How did the writing process with them work and what were the influences that shaped the end result of that project?
I really admire those guys, they have a relentless work ethic and they’re incredibly creative. The creative process with them has been really open-ended. For two of the Fearless Flyers records, we just showed up and brought in ideas and shaped them in the studio. All of the takes are live, what you see is what we played. It brings a freshness to the experience and immerses the viewer in the moment. That’s why their fans love them so much.
How has your composing career affected your drumming or vice verse when it comes to making stylistic choices?
I go back to storytelling, and the idea of using sound to evoke feelings – I like to guide the listener through the experience, whether I’m writing a song or playing a drum solo. In the moment, I am thinking of the music as a fan. I always try to think of the music from the vantage point of a listener rather than the sometimes deconstructive vantage point of a musician.
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“I recently released an EP called “Light and Shadow” and it’s my most personal work to date. I wanted to write something that was evocative, and I wanted to write for strings. I’m proud of the music and I hope it resonates with people. KINFOLK has a new album which is wrapping production, I hope to release it in early 2021, and I certainly hope we’ll be able to tour in support of it. The advice I’d like to share — be yourself. Be patient and be prepared, strive to be a better person than you were yesterday.”Nate Smith