Issue 49 — July 2011.
Interview By Trent Bryson Dean | Photo By Tristan Pemberton
Jared Underwood is an award-winning musician who is always on the move. While at home as drummer for the twice ARIA nominated group CODA, Jared has played with Sydney and Brisbane Symphony Orchestras, Ian Moss, The Whitlams, Delta Goodrem, Jenny Morris and Brian McFadden, as well as having collaborated with, and worked alongside, an impressive list of world class musicians and producers. Whether he’s performing or composing, writing film scores or playing Pop, Rock, Reggae or Fusion, Jared is a musician who is energised by diversity and creativity. Having just recently married, Jared shared with me about his yearning to find more of his own personal identity as an artist…
Jared, how has 2011 shaped up for you so far?
Yeah, I’ve been pretty busy. I have a recording studio with my band mates from CODA in Pyrmont, Sydney, and that’s where we write our music, and also where myself and my studio partner (who is a musician and film composer) do various projects. He’s writing music for an Australian Fashion Week thing at the moment, and I’ll be composing music for another short film coming up next month. I’ve been composing more and more these days, and I recently won ‘Best Original Score’ at TROPFEST, which was very exciting. I also produce and cowrite with singers in the studio, too. The studio’s a base for us to record, compose, produce, and I also practise my drums there and rehearse with bands. Yesterday I arrived there with one of my long time musical collaborators, bass player Dave Symes – he plays with Missy Higgins and Sarah Blasko and he’s producing an album at the moment. I’m the audio engineer/drummer for the project, so I set up my drums and Dave started playing them while I engineered the sound in the control room, and then I jumped back on the drums and we started to record. So yesterday we did drums and organ with a great player, Stu Hunter, and laid down some rhythm tracks in preparation for when the singer comes in a couple of weeks. The kit I was using was like this mash-up of a kit with a Recording Custom bass drum, old Tama Superstar 70’s toms that have that great dead sound, and a trash hat – no snare or anything else which makes for an unusual sounding drum kit that works for that particular song. After leaving that session I went to a great studio called Big Jesus Burger (BJB) to listen to mix engineer Scott Horscroft mixing the last two tracks for my band CODA’s new album. When I arrived, I noticed we were missing the bass parts, so I had to race back to the CODA studio and grab the files that didn’t come through on the transfer. There are a lot of layers in that song, so I guess it was kind of easy to miss!
When is the new CODA album looking to be released?
Vaguely, the latter half of this year. We’ve been working on it for a long time now. Everyone has been so busy, because the band members do lots of other musical projects as well. I’ve been with CODA for coming up to 14 years now, and the first year we did it we played the Big Day Out and a bunch of other shows. We used to be an instrumental group, but through the recording of this album we have now been using various guest vocalists, a little bit like Groove Armada or Massive Attack. CODA is the kind of group where there is a core of writers and producers, of which I am one, and then there is the addition of various special guest singers and instrumentalists. People can check out our website if they’re interested: www.codaplanet.com
What’s your background, Jared? Did you grow up in a musical family?
Yeah, sort of… My grandad used to play drums, and had this amazing old drum kit with mounted wood blocks across the top, and a sailing ship painted on it, and also a light inside the bass drum. It was incredible! Even the hi hat was so low to the floor that you couldn’t play it with sticks at all, which must make it very old. That’s not the reason I started to play drums, though. I started playing piano which my mum got me going with, and apparently I always used to bang on pots and pans at home obsessively. So, I got into the Con High School (Conservatorium High School in Sydney, Australia. Ed) on piano, and come year 7 I had to pick a second instrument, and I absolutely wanted to do drums. Shortly after that I switched over to doing drums and percussion as my main instrument and bought myself a kit from Billy Hyde’s in 1990. I had my first percussion lesson with Graeme Leak, an amazing percussionist who now lives in Melbourne. From there I went to the Conservatorium to do a Diploma of Percussion, where I studied Classical Contemporary percussion with Daryl Pratt. I’m now playing with his Jazz/ Fusion group, which is musically very interesting and challenging.
What’s the “flavour” of this new group? Is it similar to Daryl’s great group Sonic Fiction?
Yeah, well when I was a student I would sit in on a lot of the Sonic Fiction rehearsals at the Con and learn so much from watching Andrew Gander play and rehearse that music. I got a lot of inspiration from that. Daryl was also in another group, ‘AtmaSphere’ started by David Jones who was on drums and I had lessons with both David and Andrew, but he would also rehearse with Chad Wackerman’s group there, too. I just recorded a new album at the Con with Daryl on the weekend, actually. We rehearsed for 3 days prior, and then went in and had some long days recording it. Daryl’s music is composed in some ways similarly to the Sonic Fiction stuff with unison lines and plenty of material that the ensemble has to catch together, but Daryl has changed his approach since the Sonic Fiction days preferring more improvisation and musical interaction with this new ensemble. He’s quite inspired by the concepts that New York guitarist Wayne Krantz has been exploring with his band, and the more improvised side of what he’s doing. Daryl’s new tunes really are featuring more ‘on the fly’ interaction between band members, but still include sections of detailed charted-out passages. It’s really enjoyable for me to play on the drums – catching the unison ensemble sections with many changes of time signature and tempo, and then being able to get more creative and spontaneous in the improvised sections.
What’s the makeup of the ensemble this time around?
Daryl’s playing vibes, of course, though this time around it’s just acoustic vibes because he has another percussionist, Phillip South playing hand percussion and electronics; Emile Nelson is on electric bass; Richard Maegraith plays saxes, and the fantastic Matt McMahon is on piano and Rhodes. It’s certainly a lot of fun playing with musicians of this calibre. I can play very syncopated and displaced phrases and the band stays right with me. No one gets lost!
Who are the players that have influenced, and continue to influence you?
Players like Vinnie Colaiuta, Chad Wackerman, and Terry Bozzio have really inspired me with their depth of approach beyond just having a few set licks that you play over and over, and that’s obviously because they’ve practised so many permutations and variations and have developed such expansive musical and rhythmic vocabularies. In my own way, I’m always trying to phrase things differently, because I love that attitude of taking risks musically and stretching your creativity, but choosing your moment is crucial though. I was also influenced by Andrew Gander in my student days, in the way that he would often set up his drums differently for the variety of situations he was in. When I was a student learning from Andy, I would go to many of his different gigs because I found him to be quite inspiring with the rhythmic material he would come up with and the way he executed it technically. I learnt a lot about technique and touch from watching Andy play. For Bebop gigs he’d have a tiny kit tuned a certain way, and for TV show’s he’d have a bigger kit tuned differently again, and then he’d play with Sonic Fiction and he’d have a different set up again. I started taking inspiration from that and have always changed my set up to sonically fit the musical situations I find myself in. It also keeps things interesting from gig to gig.
Jared, you’ve certainly got your fingers in a lot of pies, artistically speaking, and you particularly do a lot of collaborative work, or what I term “artistic mixing”. Is this something that is becoming more common within the industry?
On a general scale, if I opened up Drumscene Magazine and looked at what other drummers on a national level are doing, I would say that what I’m doing is unique, but within my musical community I don’t feel it’s that unique. I know a few other musicians in my scene are doing some amazing multi-disciplinary collaborative stuff, but then at the end of the day, it’s really all just music, isn’t it? If I’m playing drums on a festival stage, or composing music for a short film, it’s all still just trying to tell a story musically and bring something creative and unique to that event. You know, when you’re a percussionist, it’s much different than playing a single instrument like violin because you have to play vibes, marimba, timpani, and so on, right down to the triangle. And then for some percussionists that also includes drum kit! So, for me, that discipline and attitude of playing many instruments led me to getting involved with multi-disciplines like film music, song writing, studio producing and collaboration. There are also lots of other guys in the world who do this as well, drummers who are piano players or producers, and guys like Stewart Copeland who is a great drummer who writes music for film. More specifically to me though, because I started on piano, and spent 8 years studying classical percussion I’m not completely satisfied playing drum kit only, and my music writing really all started out when I began cowriting with other artists, and as a member of bands from about 1998 onwards. When I first came out of uni I wasn’t confident to write complete songs myself and at the time I was focused on being a drummer and had studied that and I thought that was my only role in a band. But over the years I’ve learnt to put aside any reservations or hang-ups about composing music and just do it. These days I often start my compositions on the vibes or marimba, actually.
Every situation is different and requires a different approach, no doubt?
Yeah, definitely. There is a different artistic sensibility with each situation. I really enjoy the variety of genres I have to play but I have to make sure I’m properly prepared, through learning the material and also listening to music in that genre to get the sonic quality of the drums and feel for each style. I play with Sydney Reggae group ‘King Tide’ from time to time, and then I’ll do the complete opposite and play in a Frank Zappa tribute band called ‘Petulant Frenzy’. Another complete opposite of genres would be Daryl Pratt’s Jazz Fusion band compared to a Dance Pop group I play in called ‘Grafton Primary’ where I play to a click and have triggers on the kit, use 2B sticks and 20” crashes!
Well, in that same sense then, how do you juggle the 3 roles of composer, performer and producer, and are you finding a particular pull toward 1 of these roles in particular?
I do enjoy the diversity, and to be honest, I’m not such a “planning person”. I’ve been active as a freelance musician for the last 15 years since I left university and have been pulled and pushed toward different things over that time, but now that I’m getting older – and I just got married a month ago – I’m starting to pull things more into focus and make my decisions more in line with what I personally want to do as an artist, rather than just say “yes” because I can do the gig. So, I’m getting a new website built at the moment, and going through the process as to what I want to present myself as, and this has been a really good catalyst for me to think about what I really want to do, as opposed to being known as a Jack of all trades. Over the years I have developed the skills to do a wide variety of things, but these days I’m thinking more about my future. For me, my drive is to be creating original music of my own and collaborating with other people on music or projects that I feel represent my musical personality. After leaving the Con having done the Classical course, the obvious choice is to go and audition for, and join, a Symphony Orchestra, and some of my mates have done that because that’s been their passion, but that’s something I’ve never wanted to do. As soon as I finished up at the Con I really knew that I wanted to write my own music, and that is something that I find really energising. I also know a lot of guys, who are session drummers, and they get a lot of satisfaction from playing other people’s material and they are good at that, and that’s absolutely valid. I still do session work as I have been for the last 10 years, but these days I feel drawn to doing as much writing as I can. I have a duo with a singer who plays electric guitar through loop pedals and boxes, and we play improvised music and interact immediately and never play a song the same way twice. I feel very creatively stimulated when I do that, because it’s not like rehearsing a Pop song over and over. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
You’re speaking of the Focale project here, right?
Yeah, right. This is a duo with me on drums and electronics and Robyn Wilson singing and playing guitar through multiple loop pedals and effects. We just finished recording an album together at 301 studios that has just been mixed and mastered, so that will come out soon independently through our website www.focaleland.com I really enjoy the energy and rawness of this project.
What does the rest of the year look like?
Well, with the website under construction, the aim for me is to really get my name out there as an individual and forge that identity more and more, like we spoke about. I’m also working on a solo album which you’ll be able to find out more about on the website when I get that up. I’ll still be producing and engineering, but as a drummer I want to do a live project that I have more control of rather than just continuing to be a sideman. When you start to develop a musical character, people will start to come to you for what you do well, and that direction inspires me.