Aaron Comess - New Album: Live 2016Interview by Sean Mitchell // April 04 2016
I think there’s a misconception that people think they can have a career just from uploading stuff to the internet. Every now and then it works, but you’ve got to get out there and see the people.
Photo courtesy of Manish Gosalia.
Aaron, you have a new album coming out, but before we talk about that let’s talk a little bit about the project that you play with that has done the album. How did it get started and what’s it called?
This is going to be a live release, actually. It’s with my trio – which is myself on drums, Teddy Kumpel on guitar, and Richard Hammond on bass – and this particular group has been together now about five or six years. We’ve put out two records; the last studio record was called Blues for Use and the one before that was called Beautiful Mistake. Prior to that I did a record in 2006 called Catskills Cry with Tony Levin and Bill Dillon and that was kind of the beginning of me making my own records and own instrumental music. So 10 years later, it’s been great! I put out a bunch along the way. This particular group has really developed in a really cool way and I thought it would be interesting to release a record on how we’ve developed live.
In making your own records and putting out your own albums, for you, where does the album start coming alive, and how do you start nurturing that process?
Right here – my acoustic guitar. I usually end up sitting on this chair or somewhere like this and pick up my acoustic guitar and that’s how I do most of my writing. I’m always coming up with little bits and usually when I get to a point where I feel like I have a bunch of songs, I’ll start thinking about putting a record together. All three of the studio records that I’ve done, which have been my original songs, have all been written on guitar. That’s basically my process – I’ll write the stuff on my guitar and then I’ll demo the stuff in my studio and I’ll send it to the guys and we’ll get together and go for it.
With all the studio records, I would demo the stuff and then we would get together and just do it; I didn’t find the need for a lot of rehearsal. These guys are great; they would learn the stuff, we’d come in and spend a couple of days and really get it together, and usually things would happen in the studio that you might not have expected – which is what I love – but from that point so much has developed with these songs since we’ve been playing them live for the past four or five years, so that’s the cool thing about this live record.
For you, meeting players around New York probably isn’t that difficult; but when you decide ‘this is an act I’d like to pursue something with’ how do you meet players that you find you can trust to put that point across in your music?
That’s a great question. I immediately knew that I wanted Teddy Kumpel to be the guitar player. I’ve known Teddy for a long time; he’s a great guitar player, we’re good friends, and he can basically play anything.
Part of the challenge with doing my music is that I’m basically handing somebody this composed parts – there’s no vocalist; it’s very much about respecting the melody, respecting the parts. I really wanted to find somebody who could take what I’ve done and respect that and then make it their own, and Teddy’s just been so amazing at doing that. I can’t say enough good things about how he’s interpreted the music.
Then Richard Hammond is another great friend of mine who’s a wonderful bass player. We’ve been playing together for over 10 years. We’ve done a lot of different projects together so we have just a great chemistry and he also has the ability to kind of go anywhere musically.
When I put this particular trio together it was immediate that those are the guys I wanted to do this– no question.
Is it a challenge to have guys come in and be honest or is it like, “Aaron just does everything right”? How does it work for you to go in there and still be growing as a player, even though they know they’re playing with Aaron Comess. I mean, that must be, for some cats, a little daunting?
Not really. That’s the beauty of New York City; there’s so many amazing musicians here, and I’m just one of many of the musicians here. One of the reasons I came her 27 years ago was to get my ass kicked and become a better player, and that’s the reason I’m still here – I get my ass kicked everyday; there’s such a great amazing amount of talent here! And all the different generations now: we’ve got the generations before me that I came here to learn from, then my own generation, and now the generation younger than me. So I’m in a good place 'cause I’m taking from everybody and we’re all friends here so there’s never any kind of intimidation. When you go into the studio with people – whether it’s my own project or I’m working with somebody else – everybody’s there for a reason and it’s always an open-minded situation. I know in my situation I want to call people that can contribute to the project and I think when people call me that they want me to contribute.
You have another project, Aaron, that you said you played with quite a bit, The Air Conditioned Gypsies. Let’s talk about them for a little bit.
Yeah, cool. That’s my latest group that I’ve been doing, for about a year now. It’s basically kind of a collective and I’m able to call upon all my favorite musicians here in New York and I’ve been doing gigs about once every six weeks or so over in the Rockwood Music Hall. It’s been great. I’ve done a couple with two drummers – I did two with Mark Guiliana, one of my favourite drummers; Jojo Mayer, another incredible drummer. Any time I do it, every band is different; the only guy that I always have is Leon Gruenbaum, who plays an instrument called the Samchillian, which he invented. The constant of that group is that it’s all improv. We all show up; it’s different guys and we try to keep everything – not like a jam - but short little musical pieces. That’s what I’m working for, for my next record. I’ve recorded all the shows. I’m looking for little short bits of my favourite moments from all these different shows, as well as I’ve started to do a bunch of stuff in the studio with different groups of people. It’s going to be really cool. It’s going to be totally unique; it’s going to be totally different from anything I’ve ever done. I’m not in any rush. It will probably come out sometime in early ’17. It’s a really fun project.
So the Samchillian – let's go back to that for a second. I would assume it’s a keyboard-based instrument?
Well, actually he plays from a computer keypad. He came up with this crazy software that basically through the keypad he has all his samples going; he can also put the software into a keyboard too, so he usually has a keyboard. And the actual Samchillian is this weird-looking thing that has a keypad on it. You gotta look it up – just look up "Samchillian, Leon Gruenbaum." And if you go on YouTube a lot of The Air Conditioned Gypsies gigs are there. Just look up "Aaron Comess and the Air Conditioned Gypsies" – there’s a lot of them and he’s on all of them. He’s the one guy that I want to have at every gig, just because he’s so unique.
How did you begin your musical fore into any kind of instrument – was it drums first, guitar first?
Actually I played piano when I was about five. I took classical piano lessons for awhile and then when I got to be around nine, I decided I wanted to play drums and I told my parents, “I want to get drum lessons.” Lucky for me they found this great teacher – I grew up in Dallas, Texas – named Jack Iden, who got me started on drums and he immediately got me on rudiments. He wouldn’t let me get off the snare drum for a couple of years. Even though I was kicking and screaming it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m very thankful to that guy.
With the Spin Doctors you were in an era with CDs and albums, and record companies were still very much thriving but that’s not the case so much anymore. As Aaron Comess 2016, what does the musical landscape look like to you? People say the music industry is dying; what’s your take on that whole thing and how would you, as an independent artist, release this album?
This is actually the first album I’m putting out completely digitally – I’m not even going to bother putting out CDs. I still do like to put out CDs and I think it’s still a good thing for people to do, especially if you’re in a band or if you’re an act that’s touring a lot because people still will buy CDs at gigs; it can be a viable way to get your music out there and make some money. But I don’t tour a lot with this group so I didn’t see the purpose . At least for this project I wanted to try to do it just digitally. It’s going to be available in all digital formats – it’ll save me a couple of boxes in my closet. (laughs)
To answer your question about the music business, I’m optimistic about it. I was definitely lucky to come up in a time with the Spin Doctors in the '90s when the music business was really thriving – it was kind of the peak time. People were buying CDs, cassettes, vinyl and there was a lot of money still in the industry and TV was huge. You really could have a big record, like we did. It’s different; I try to stay optimistic about it – it’s real easy to get dark about it. You hear a lot of people going, “Those days, those days,” but I’m living here in New York and I see from a pure musical standpoint on a creative level, a talent level, it’s as good as or better than ever. I try to judge the musical landscape by the kind of music I’m hearing, and I’m hearing great music. The downside is, yes, it is a fact that it’s become harder for people to earn a living, but you can still earn a living. You just have to be a little different about it; you have to look at things a little bit differently. People aren’t trying to be like everybody else. I’m seeing a lot more creative bands out there now because they’re not so concerned with getting a record deal. That’s good for the creativity of music because nobody should be making music to get a record deal anyway. Spin Doctors certainly never did; our goals were never to get a record deal and have a hit record. Our goals early on – which I think should be the goals of any artist – was to make really good music, try to figure out a way to make a living at it. Lucky for us, it snowballed and we had a really good thing and did get a record deal. We were also in the industry at a time where with a lot of hard work and a lot of fighting we got where we wanted to go.
People always ask me this question, especially younger musicians, and I’m just like, “Listen, you’ve got to be super dedicated; you’ve got to be super committed; you’ve got to be really good; you’ve got to have something that’s unique and different; and then you got to get out there and work really hard. If you’re a band or any kind of artist, there’s no way around it– you’ve got to get on the road; you’ve got to play gigs. The computer thing is great and this is all very important, how you maneuver that, but it’s not everything. I think there’s a misconception that people think they can have a career just from uploading stuff to the internet. Every now and then it works, but you’ve got to get out there and see the people.
At the end of the day, that’s the deal, right? It’s never changed – it’s getting out and playing.
Exactly, live music is great, it’s as big as ever. That’s never going to change. People are always going to want to hear live music. As far as the recording industry, that remains to be seen. There needs to be a lot of changes to be made to get some income back into the artists' hands. I think we’re in a transitional phase and I think that over time we’re going to figure out a way to make that happen. Right now it’s definitely a transitional phase and it’s not very good for the artist – everybody deserves to get paid for their music.
Speaking of putting money back in the artists' hands, where can we get the new album? It’s obviously going to be online, so where would they go online?
Obviously it’ll be streaming, but hopefully you’ll go to iTunes, any of the digital formats and you can buy it there. My daughter did the cover – it’s a beautiful cover. I’m excited for people to take a listen to it.
Quickly before we go, any news to report on the Spin Doctors – are you guys going out at all?
The Spin Doctors, we’re on a little bit of a hiatus this year because our singer, Chris Barron, is having some vocal issues; he’s getting better.
We’ve been really busy over the last four or five years – all the original members – so I think this year’s going to be a little light for the band, but I think 2017 we’re going to be back playing a lot. We’ve got about half of a record in the can that we started about a year ago. Once Chris heals up we’ll probably do some more writing and some more recording and we’ll certainly be doing a lot of shows, I’d say sometime next year.
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About the Author
Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.
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