Inside the Mind of a Rythmist
by Michael Aubrecht
Scott Pellegrom is an eccentric individual by his own admission. Teacher, clinician, session player, bandleader and producer are also suitable titles to describe him. Whether it’s blazing around the kit with lightning-fast chops or backing an artist with a set of brushes or a Cajon, Pellegrom is comfortable playing in any musical situation. He is an innovator who creates a variety of sounds using a variety of sources in order to achieve the desired results. These include his voice, the drum kit, baking pans, dog toys and an assortment of foreign objects not usually associated with percussion. With a reputation as an unorthodox drummer who can produce “particular sounds” for “particular situations” Pellegrom is in demand both in the studio and on the stage. His web bio states:
“Whether he’s dubbed a ‘mad scientist’ or a ‘magician’ on drums, one thing is certain: Scott Pellegrom is an adrenalized, world-class percussionist with unmatched passion for his music and unrivaled admiration from his peers. For an admittedly “introverted, quiet, nerdy person, Scott Pellegrom transforms into a dazzling and rhythmic pretty crazy beast on the drums – a world-class percussion powerhouse.”
Pellegrom took some time away from his hectic schedule of sessions, clinics and festivals to discuss what makes him such an unconventionalist.
MA: The obvious first question is what brought you to the drums?
SP: To be honest I’m not sure if anything really “brought” me to the drums. I always tell this story that was told to me by my mother. She was a grade school teacher and her classroom was right next to the music room. When she was pregnant with me she said that any time the choir or concert band would play I would start moving and kicking around. I was literally dancing in the womb. My mom always joked that her son, I’m the youngest of five, would be either a drummer or a soccer player. After I was born, the first piece of clothing given to me by my grandma had a picture of a snare drum on it. I guess I was branded at birth. When I was just able to sit up I was banging on everything that I could get my hands on. When I learned to crawl I did the typical drummer thing by going into the kitchen and playing on pots and pans. Somehow I managed to put the pans in melodic order from low to high. My parents would slip me a spoon or a spatula and I would play all day.
As I got older my parents got me a Muppet or Sesame Street drum set and I went through a few of them. Later my brother Chris went out and bought an old drum kit off his buddy and set it up and surprised me. We started jamming together and learning songs. The first song I learned was “Jump” by Van Halen. We formed a Pellegrom Family Band that never left the basement.
MA: It sounds like it was meant to be.
SP: It’s something that I’ve always been into. I love dancing. I love singing. I love listening to music. I’ve always gravitated toward sounds. I love the sound of thunder and the wind and the waves. I guess it was the drums that came to me and told me this is what you’re doing [laughs].
MA: It also sounds like you were inspired by everything around you and you continue to cultivate that fascination today.
SP: Yes. I’m an avid fisherman. I was raised fishing. I grew up on a farm. You name it we had it, whether it was livestock or exotic animals. I was always around sounds and I was always out in nature. Even the chores I had like digging and picking had a particular rhythm. I remember as a young kid, I would go out into the woods by myself and listen to the sounds that surrounded me, like the birds chirping and the rustling of the leaves. It quickly translated into my drumming. That’s where the colors and textures and soundscapes started influencing me at a young age.
MA: At what point did you feel you were gravitating toward pursuing music?
SP: When I was very young in school, I would draw pictures of a stage with a massive drum kit and a band. That’s what I did, using my imagination. I always wanted to be a drummer. Some kids would want to be a fireman or a policeman. I wanted to be a musician. My parents always supported that. They had me take a lot of lessons including classical and jazz. I went to a lot of camps and seminars. Even when I started to get into high school, I continued to actively pursue drumming. I played in the marching and concert bands.
I met a senior in high school named Jonathan Rogers when I was a freshman. He was a guy who really had his act together. He was in a touring group that recorded. He was playing with guys who were in their twenties when he was just seventeen. John was great on the vibraphone and great at sight reading. He was so dialed in and that it really inspired me. I realized that if I wanted to make a living playing music, I needed to follow in the footsteps of this guy. At the time I wanted to study with John, but he told me that I really needed to find this guy named Derico Watson. I called him and took my first lesson and was blown away. He was that all-around guy who was teaching, recording, writing and touring. Aside from everything that I learned from him, he pushed my limits and boundaries and opened my mind up to so many possibilities. He also taught me all of the requirements of becoming a working musician including communication and social skills.
MA: Aside from a traditional music upbringing, when did you realize that you were developing an original approach and style?
SP: It was really up and down. I’m sure a lot of players can say the same thing about how they were influenced early on. I absolutely love Dave Weckl. My first VHS instructional video was “Back to Basics.” To this very day he is one of my favorite players. Every time I watch him, he blows my mind. There was a period of time when I wanted to emulate a Dave Weckl or a Dennis Chambers. I realized that I was trying to do that, and not in the appropriate manner. That was in my late teens. There was a big battle where I had to learn the “chop thing” as opposed to the “pocket thing.” What happened next was that I was always experimenting in the practice room, doing weird stuff. I was having fun but I was also self-conscious of doing what I was doing. One day I said forget it, just let it go. Do what you do, and let’s see what happens. From that moment on, I believed that I had something to say. I was developing a voice and a personality as a drummer. It was then that I really started to fall in love with drumming.
This birthed my fascination and experimentation phase where I could spend hours upon hours in a dark room with just a snare drum. That changed not only the way that I played but also the way that I thought about the possibilities of drumming. I just did a clinic yesterday at Northern Michigan University for their percussion program with Dr. James A. Strain. He was a guy that, instead of having these students sight read and do rudimental studies, said what can you get out of a snare drum? What can you get out of your drumsticks? Things that were conceptual. This made them think out of the box. That really resonated with me because it was along the lines of how I was already thinking and it reaffirmed to the students that this unusual approach was valuable and in fact something you could learn from.
As I was refining my own approach I began asking myself, what are the possibilities of a snare drum? What about a ride cymbal? What parts of a drum set can I exploit? What parts can I get rid of? I started locking myself away and experimenting. This included playing with my hands and using brushes. I would play every single crevice of a snare drum. I would visualize how much pressure I was putting on it and how the tuning would come out. Then I would move to the ride cymbal and focus strictly on that. This was followed by just the bass drum and then the hi-hat. This developed into a feeling that I only wanted to play a two piece with just the kick and snare. That is what really changed the game for me. The realization was that the rabbit hole is deeper than I ever imagined.
MA: You continue to cultivate this approach even to this day, regardless of your past experiences.
SP: Yes. Now I have gone back to my roots from the very beginning…when I used to beat on pots and pans. Today I spend a lot of time playing on everything except a drum, to see what its personality is. I’m that guy who will get preoccupied in the bathroom flushing the toilet and turning the sink on and off or listening to how the electric toothbrush sounds. I am constantly looking for sounds around me and rhythm can be found everywhere.
MA: You refer to yourself as a “rythmist.” Can you define that?
SP: A “rythmist” is a really cool concept. It means to me a drummer who paints in broad strokes. He or she is not just a snare drum player or a hand percussionist but is beyond that. I love rhythm, I love sounds and I live it. I even dream about it. I study it. It means that everything around you is music. From the city to the woods and in between, it has opened up a whole new genre and anything you have can generate sound.
MA: So you are constantly inspired and investigating the things around you to see what can be done with any particular item and at any particular time.
SP: Even right this minute. While I’m talking to you I am out walking my dog listening to the river. It’s fall and there are so many textures opening up with the dry and shriveling leaves and the sound of the breeze blowing through the trees. To me it sounds like someone using brushes on a 16” floor tom with a coated head on top of it. It’s hard for me to push that away. It’s something that I am always thinking about. It’s one of those channels that if you open it up it will speak to you. I’m really inspired by nature. When I analyze nature, I see what is possible that I could play. I can relax and let the ideas come to me.
MA: Do you walk a delicate balance between the traditional aspects of the drums and the unique and unorthodox aspects that you practice? For example, you have students, and I imagine you are presenting them with theory.
SP: Absolutely. I still use all of the basic foundations of drumming. I teach the theory and rhythms and rudiments. Rudiments are the gateway to anything you want to say or play as a drummer. I also use the conceptual things too because I realize that not everyone wants to be a professional or competitive musician, but I do feel that it is very important for the human race to create and celebrate music. I try hard to inspire people. Some people actually like playing on their face or using a pack of Tic-tac’s as a shaker simply because it’s fun to do. It opens things up and makes playing certain ways reachable, instead of having folks say, “I could never do that.” I like keeping one foot rooted in our history and culture of past drummers and leaning the other foot toward the future of what may be. That, to me, is what’s exciting about drumming. Think about it. The drums are the oldest instrument and people are still pushing it forward.
MA: You have presented a number of video lessons over on Drumeo’s website and you did a motivational speaking engagement for TED. You are also a clinician and teacher. What do you want people to receive from you?
SP: I tell people all the time that I’m not a perfect player. I’m not a perfect person. If you see me playing solo, teaching a drum clinic or doing a speaking event, I am improvising the whole time. Nothing is ever rehearsed. The reason I do that is that I want people to see someone else in the moment creating music and taking a risk. If I feel comfortable and secure about doing that, then people can witness that approach and get inspired. I hope that they in turn will go off and do the same thing. That to me is incredibly important. There are too many reasons to be insecure in today’s world and it is difficult at times to create something that is totally subjective. There is a reward and a feeling of satisfaction when you can rise above that.
MA: So your goal is to elicit a reaction from your viewers apart from the drums and influence them as a person.
SP: Yes. Hopefully.
MA: You are an in-demand session player. What kinds of challenges do you experience in the studio?
SP: There are a lot of challenges with anything musically because it is an emotional process. A lot of people struggle with wanting to be an artist and musician. You have that side which you want to cultivate, but you also have to do a task and serve a purpose. When you are in the studio, you do the job required by the producer and the artist that hired you. That is crucial, to keep in mind that it is not about you, it’s about the music. I have all of my goofy ideas, so if I am working with an artist who has an idea or is looking for a particular sound, I may suggest something that I can achieve with my own approach. I can make something acoustic sound electronic or bring a different sound out of a snare or bass drum.
MA: You use such a variety of elements including pots and pans, squeaky toys, towels, etc. You must show up at a session with quite a bag of tricks, as well as a large trunk.
SP: I definitely do that. I am using my own “database” in my head of what items can produce a specific sound, or a variety of sounds.
MA: You must also have some very open minded producers and technicians.
SP: Anytime I go into a studio I’ll investigate what’s in the kitchen or what’s in the bathroom. Even what’s in their storage. Is there a cardboard box that I can use to create an awesome bass drum sound? Sometimes the session folks will say that they have everything you need, just show up, and the gear will be difficult to work with. I’ll grab a roll of paper towels and throw it over the drums. The result can be a beautiful sound. I guess I have survival skills. It’s like being MacGyver or having a Swiss Army knife. It’s all about having backup plans to get through the session. I always come into a session and immediately ask, “What are you looking for?” Can you print out the lyrics so I can see what you are trying to get across? I love having people direct me because we are all working to do what the artist wants us to achieve.
I don’t want to be a drummer. I want to be a supporting musician. Even with my solo record that I released I intentionally strived to not make it a “drummer’s album.” I wanted it to be about the music and the people involved with creating it. That’s the same way I approach the sessions. There is nothing better than listening to music that is pure. I love listening to folk music because it grabs you with an emotional response and sticks with you. You can be an absolute killer drummer, but it all comes down to serving the song and being someone that other people like working with.
MA: What about the challenges of live performances?
SP: Well I get this a lot. The reason I went the educator-speaker route is that it allowed me, as a drummer, to be an independent artist. That little hub enabled me to be who I am and play how I play. As a drum soloist that is what led people to see what I can do. Someone may hear me on a record and say “He’s just playing a shaker” or they come and see me live and say “He’s just playing a Cajon tonight” and they are bummed out. They are like, “Why is he not on a full fusion drum kit?” I get some of those struggles where people will say they wished they had seen me open up the show. They don’t realize that it’s not my gig. It’s someone else’s and I am in a supporting role. I’m there to serve the music. That is priority number one.
A lot of the stuff I come up with, as a drum soloist, is most effective in a theater or auditorium where the acoustics are good and strong and you don’t even need to be mic’d up. I want an echo that projects great. When I am playing with my trio (or trio +1) and we are amped up playing a club or festival, I have to approach the way that I am going to play fills and solos or a groove because of what may or may not be picked up or lost in the mix. My band goes for blood every time because we would rather take risks and mess up than play it safe. It’s not fun if you’re mailing it in. Making sure that sound is absorbed by the audience is a huge factor to playing out.
MA: Tell us about the Scott Pellegrom Trio.
SP: It changes all the time. Basically I started the trio so I could have a fun and creative outlet. For a long time, aside from clinics and lessons and sessions, I was always a freelance guy working for other people. After doing some tours, I felt like it was time for me to do my own thing. Every drummer that I ever looked up to had their own band at one point. I thought let’s put a group together, get weird and play out every now and then. Before I knew it we were booked to do 100 dates a year. Even more than that at times. It also allowed me to mix and match different musicians. I knew all these great players, so I sometimes want a quintet or a sextet depending upon where we are playing. I always try to cater to the venues we are playing at. If it’s a larger place I will expand the band. If it’s a smaller place we might play as a duet with minimal instruments. It’s an ever evolving thing. I’m even using a DJ now. (*The SPT released their debut album Super Natural Bang)
MA: What kind of gear do you typically use today?
SP: I’ve been working closely with DW, PDP and LP. I love their unique drums and percussion instruments. I will use that and maybe two rides, some pots and pans. I will use rags and towels, jingles, jangles, squeaky toys and other things that I can throw on the kit. I have a lot of things that I can use to create a stack on the fly and then remove it at will. Within a song I can sometimes change the entire sound of the kit while one hand is playing the groove and the other is making adjustments. Sometimes I will show up at a gig and folks are like “Why are you missing…?” My reply is “Trust me. I’m gonna do my job.” And then I play and they say it sounded great.
MA: What are some of the weirdest accoutrements that you have used to play?
SP: I’ve used ketchup bottles, chip bags, matches, credit cards, pots, pans, car doors, anything and everything that I can get my hands on. I have a dog named Pegasus who goes with me everywhere I go. One day I was playing and he came into the room chewing on his squeaky toy. It sounded great so I grabbed it and stuck it between my hi-hat. I thought wow, that’s cool. Now I use the hi-hat to play other instruments. I can put a cowbell or an air whistle in there while getting a whole new sound. I love going to craft stores like Hobby Lobby or Goodwill and picking up things that catch my eye. I love baking sheets and cooking utensils. That approach allows me to make music at any time. It allows me to see the entire world as a musical playground.
MA: You have an interesting background and a great outlook on life. What advice do you have for drummers who are searching for their own voice?
SP: That’s a loaded question and I think there are loaded statements behind that. You get to a point in your life and career that you need to serve a purpose. You need to focus on your goals, whatever they may be. Realize that this is a job. It is serious. It’s a career choice. In order to be a musician you need to define what roles you have. Pursue your own style and agenda on the side, but know when your time belongs to someone else. You also have to take time to experiment for yourself. Seek out your own sounds. If you are inspired by other drummers, find out what they do and then run away from it. Use it as a building block in your foundation. Take their words and turn them into your own. Don’t be afraid to mess things up. Put a floor tom in place of your snare drum. That will create a whole new sound. Every one will sound different. Everything will sound different. Don’t limit yourself by trying to be someone else. That’s how you get lost.
Shed your inhibitions. Apply what inspires you to the drums.
Visit Scott at his Instagram page at: www.instagram.com/scottpellegrom.