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Jojo Mayer

Interview by Sean Mitchell // June 14 2013
Jojo Mayer

I would say that I am interested in the moment of the 'big bang,' like the ignition. It must have been an incredible experience to be around Louie Armstrong in 1928 when they created jazz.

Upon meeting Jojo Mayer, it is evident that he has lived his life according to the music and art that lives inside of him. There is nothing conventional about him ... nothing. Suffice to say that sitting and talking to Jojo was equal to (or perhaps even greater than) a semester at Berklee. But anything that Jojo has done, accomplished, or recorded has not been because he "heard it should be this way" or that he has subscribed to the "they say" philosophy of life. Jojo lives an examined and focused existence from one moment to the next. While he continues to amass an amazing amount of work (of which he is very proud of) he will be the first to point out that he would rather celebrate what has yet to come than to covet the past. In many respects, I can honestly say that time spent with Jojo Mayer is probably not that far removed from a chin-wag with Stravinsky or Einstein. 

As always the fully transcribed interview has been provided below.

Jojo, one thing I’ve always been curious about, your first name—where does it come from?

My dad was a musician and I spent the first couple of years of my childhood on the road. I was born in Switzerland, but I spent my life in English, Chinese, Asian; I grew up in Hong Kong, Italy, so I was growing up in a multi-language environment, predominantly English, Swiss, German and Italian. When I started to talk—my real name is Serge and they called me Sergio—I wasn’t able to pronounce my own name so I simplified it; I turned it into Geogeo.  My parents started calling me Geogeo and then Geogeo turned into Jojo. My friends called me Jojo.

You’ve been using your new pedal you have out … for over a year now it’s been out.

Well, more than that—maybe two years. The developing phase was more like a year and a half so maybe two and a half years until everything was fine tuned and it was ready for release. So it came out a year ago, but before that for a year and a half I played it, fine tuned and tweaked it.

One of the things that I really loved about it was when I heard that all the sizes of the bolts are standard sizes.

Yes. The pedal is really made with the working musician in mind. Many times I’ve been on the road and then maybe a loose screw or something like that. When you have proprietary screws and you’re on the road, you go to a music store and they say, “Well, we can special order it.”  So that’s why I decided to use all standard sized screws, so you can go into any hardware store if anything goes wrong and you’re set.

The other thing too about your playing and your set-up even, you spend a lot of time playing in electronica and in that realm. What’s curious to me is that you don’t use any electronic drums at all … not that I’ve seen, anyway.

It’s not that I don’t use electronic drums; I have a lot of electronic drums but a lot of stuff is vintage stuff.  Like in the studio I use electronic drums from the 70s and 80s things like Syncussion and Moog drums. These are a pain to travel around with; they’re a high maintenance machine and temperamental. So I’ve been using a Ddrum brain from the early 90s which has been my workhorse. It’s very reliable; it triggers really fast. The problem with electronic drums is the accessibility and it’s just too slow – they’re not there yet. I don’t think it’s that the electronic companies aren’t able to create that type of drum set but the focus is not there. The focus basically is to create practise pads with sounds so people can practise in their homes. The focus is not to create a musical instrument ‘cause a lot of those things that are available on the market right now—for my own taste—don’t really provide the specs that would qualify as a musical instrument.

You can’t really create things with a fine tuned touch. The old analog drums, they can do that. The accessibility as far as the architecture of those instruments is very tedious. It’s like those digital menus you have to step through and the sounds are not very good. The sounds are kind of dated and bland. If you compare the sound with a Moog drum, any of the companies can pretty much go home. It doesn’t compare. Those old things sound so much better and they’re so much more fun to work with.  I will get into electronic drums when more open-source architecture is provided—where I can actually create more personalized sounds and more interesting sounds, which I can’t really do. So what I do is I use a lot of outboard gear to process my drums when I play with my band, Nerve. That’s the alley that I’m taking right now. I’m not saying that I’m against playing electronic drums but they’re just not good enough right now.

I talked to Ed Mann about that too. He’s been around electronics all his life and he said that for him right now the companies are emulating, whereas he wants an instrument that he can make music on.

Yeah, I’m not interested in that ‘cause if I want to play electronic drums, I want to do something I cannot do with acoustic drums. I’m getting more into some of the user instruments, stuff like Ableton is making right now. There’s a pool of talent that works with those types of machines, so in order for me to be able to communicate with that new generation of musician, I’m getting more into it. But right now it doesn’t really touch me at that point, so then I want to get into it.

I’m curious to know, growing up you were primarily self-taught—did you have formal lessons?

No, never.

So, a lot of it was practical experience, watching and listening?

Yes, trial and error. I started to play music playing along with records around my parents’ house.  There was always music. I was fortunate that I heard a lot of music—anything from jazz to rock, Latin, classical music—so I played along with records (R&B records, The Beatles). That’s how I learned to play and then later when I was a teenager I transcribed a lot of music. I transcribed Billy Cobham solos and stuff like that for like hours and hours. That’s how I deconstructed some of my heroes and then I learned. I imitated to do what they did and that’s how I learned.

So, who were some of your first favorite drummers or first inspirations?

Ringo. Later on, it was drummers in my dad’s bands. Those were guys when I was 5/6 years old that I could have a relationship with. Later on, people like Buddy Rich. Then I went into a phase, I have to admit. I wasn’t like Emerson, Lake and Palmers or stuff like that in the 70s. But then I was quickly whipped out of that when I saw Mahavishnu for the first time. Then all these fusion drummers—but also Bonham. I guess the first drummer that really provided me with this super key experience—the guy broke my heart, literally—was Tony Williams. That was the game changer when I started to understand what he does. Then it was like a straight-forward path; I had to decode everything that he did.

But a lot of guys, like Stewart Copeland, Peter Erskine, and all the drummers from Weather Report, Omar Hakim was an influence. Obviously Vinnie Colaiuta when he first came out with Zappa was pretty impressive, or the James Brown drummer, or the Motown guys.

What moved you from jazz to now the drum and bass and into some of the areas you’re going now—which some of it’s uncharted?

Mainly, it was the realization that jazz had its day. I still love the music but the community didn’t create anything new or exciting for me. It became more and more like classical music; the scope where you could be creative became more and more restrictive. Then drum and bass came along in the early 90s and all of a sudden it was like everything was open again. That drew me to that genre of music. I think still up to this day, the subculture in electronic music provides the most interesting new impulses. Now it’s more dub step or what the Brain Fever People are doing or Flying Lotus – that’s when I hear freshness. There’s still good rock ‘n’ roll bands. I like The Black Keys and whatever; there’s good stuff still going on.

The problem with jazz is that, in terms of cultural relevance, academia has clipped the wings of jazz. It can’t fly anymore as a cultural movement. There’s still great musicians.

With rock ‘n’ roll, the business has screwed it up. One of the key elements of rock ‘n’ roll for me has always been rebellion—going against the grain, disagreeing, being against what is told to be right. This isn’t [the case] anymore. John Lennon and Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison, Hendrix—all these people, they changed the stuff.  And today rock ‘n’ roll is hairstyle predominantly. I’m not saying there isn’t talent, like Jack White. The community is kind of screwed up.

Is it safe to say maybe too (this was said of Zappa), when you became too safe with Zappa’s stuff, that’s when he moved on. That’s when he was done—when you understood it.  Is it safe to say that you are always looking?

This is really well put. I would say that I am interested in the moment of the “big bang,” like the ignition. It must have been an incredible experience to be around Louie Armstrong in 1928 when they created jazz. And then it must have been really amazing when you were around Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington when they created "this", and then it must have been really amazing after the Big Band era when all the trios started happening, like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, there was a new art form and then Charlie Parker and Coletrain—there was always this new thing where people were like, “What the fuck is this?” That is the most interesting when people go, “What is this?” That’s the moment that interests me the most. In that respect I can quote Gustav Mahler the classical composer, who is one of my favorite classical composers, he once said, “Don’t pray to the ashes, pass on the fire.” In that respect, disregarding if it’s Mozart or Bach or Stravinsky or Charlie Parker or Jimmy Hendrix or the Police or Aphex Twin, it means all the same. It’s an expression of what’s going on; it’s reflecting the Zeitgeist. So, I see myself as someone that is strong through that; I’m very interested in the past and history but I’m about the future. I’m looking forward not backward.

So, what do you have coming up in the next few months?  Where could people check you out and see you?

I have been doing a lot of touring. Last year, I did 150,000 miles and I’m a little bit tired right now, so when I get back to New York I’ll do a little bit of session work. There’s not much left. Session work is kind of like a thing of the last century but there’s still a little bit going on. So I’ll be back in New York a little bit more and I’ll be working some new music with Nerve … I’ll cut some new material. Then I’ll start working on principal shooting very soon for Secret Weapon Part Two - which is everything below the waist—it’s only foot work. That will keep me busy up until fall, and then in the fall I will do some more touring in Asia and Europe. Throughout the summer we do a couple of sprinklings of gigs with Nerve.


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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

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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