Drumming for the New Duos

Why have three, four, or more when you can do it with two?

That’s the question being posed by a growing number of rock bands. The White Stripes, Local H, Cash Audio, Jucifer, Swearing at Motorists, the Spinanes, Helio Sequence, Quasi, the Soledad Brothers, and Hella are working in a wide array of different genres ranging from garage-rock to trashy blues, rockabilly to punk, and art-rock to heavy metal. What they all have in common is a decision to limit the size of the band to two members, generally guitar and drums (though Mates of State is a keyboard/drums duo, and Evil Beaver is bass and drums).

The idea of a two-man or woman-band certainly isn’t a new one. Blues great John Lee Hooker often performed with just a drummer, as did rockabilly madman Hasil Adkins and surf guitarist Link Wray. Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience or practicality: Fewer members mean fewer people to pay and transport. But just as often it’s a situation where two musicians share a unique chemistry that would only be diluted if there were three, or it’s an aesthetic decision that more instruments would detract from the sound rather than adding to it.

Drummers who step into a duo face some unique challenges. One is that they usually set up much closer to the front of the stage, parallel with their partner, and that means they’re much more visible and a bigger part of the show. There are also some particular musical hurdles that come from playing with one musician instead of several. In order to a get handle on these, I spoke with four distinctly different but equally worthy drummers in four acclaimed duos.

BRIAN ST. CLAIR, LOCAL H With four albums to its credit and several radio hits including 1996’s “Bound for the Floor,” Local H is the most well-known of the two-piece rock bands profiled in this article. But it’s a new version of the Chicago duo that is currently touring in support of Here Comes the Zoo (Palm Pictures), with Brian St. Clair replacing Joe Daniels as guitarist-vocalist Scott Lucas’ partner.

St. Clair is an unrelentingly hard-hitting player who plays butt-end and uses only ride cymbals because anything lighter cracks or dents. “A lot of people have said I’m Animal from the Muppets, and I can see where they would say that,” he says. He developed his style in the punk-rock underground, playing in groups such as God’s Acre, Rights of the Accused, and Triple Fast Action, which frequently toured with Local H. In between, he worked as a drum tech for Cheap Trick.

“I knew Joe and Scott for a long time,” St. Clair says. “When I got the call to join Local H, I listened to the previous three records, and you could tell that Joe put a lot of thought into what he was doing; it wasn’t just like he walked in and threw something down. It almost sounded like his kick was playing to the vocal line. You don’t really hear that too much—Bun E. Carlos is the only other person I can think of who plays these weird kick patterns. I wanted to stay true to the band and the style, but at the same time, I’m a completely different drummer than Joe with different influences and a different background.”

The transition from a larger band to a duo wasn’t quite so difficult for St. Clair in the recording studio, because Local H does use bass guitar on its recordings. “I basically play off the bass line, which is pretty typical for a rock drummer, so I think in that aspect I may be a little bit more straightforward than Joe,” he says. But taking to his Premier Artists Maples onstage was now a different experience. (In concert, the only other instrument is Lucas’ guitar, though, like Cash Audio, the sound is tweaked by being fed through other amplifiers to boost the low end.)

“I definitely had to just take it over the top,” St. Clair says. “From the first second I get onstage all the way through to the end, it’s just so draining with Local H. I’m stage right, Scott is stage left, and we’re right up front. To sit back and just kind of play and not really get into the music, the stage would be completely lopsided. So I had to take it up a notch from Triple Fast Action, but I also found that we lock in much better as a duo than with four guys because you don’t have the other elements of someone else screwing up. Once you’re locked, you’re locked in.”

What is the biggest benefit St. Clair has found from being in a two-piece? “There’s one less person to argue with,” he says, laughing. “My advice is, if you’ve got a best friend or a wife or a girlfriend who plays the other instrument, it’s like, ‘Why should we deal with some other guy?’ A lot of times you hear about these bands where everybody hates this one guy. Well, just get rid of them! You don’t need it.”

November 2002 By Jim DeRogatis