I’m here with Andy Graham, an amazing musician, inventor, and performer from Northern California. He is known for his World fusion solo performances where he plays drums while playing the aboriginal didgeridoo using a special rack system he invented himself. I first met Andy at a drumming class where the teacher asked him to come in as a guest artist and play his didgeridoo. I was stunned at his abilities. I’ve since become friends with Andy and have followed his music and inventions throughout several years. He holds several patents a new electric percussion instrument called the Slapstick (aka:Slaperoo). He has recently invented the Green Machine, a cocktail drum kit with a working hi-hat. I’m very excited to talk with Andy Graham, find out the latest and also hope to glean some insight from his inventive and musical mind.
Gary: I’d like to start from the beginning and ask how you got into playing drums?
Andy: I was in third grade. It’s kind of funny. Deborah Harry got me into Drums. My friend in grade school, he was a Blondie freak, forced me to listen to Blondie and I really liked the music but it was more that I had a crush on Deborah Harry. But through that I discovered Clem Burke, the drummer for Blondie. He was really solid. I still think he’s one of my favorites. This was in grade school. Third and fourth grade and that’s what set me off on playing drums. Watching him play, because he was very bombastic but also quite a showman. I remember watching them play on Saturday Night Live, playing the song Dreaming, which is basically a bunch of crazy drum fills all the way through if you watch it. So that started me thinking about playing the drums. I would take Blondie records and slow them down to slower speeds, remember we use to do that kind of thing, just so I could dissect the drum rolls. Because at the time they seemed superhuman. It was funny, I kind of stayed in that vein of music until high school. I was listening to Men Without Hats and stuff like that and my friend and I would send each other cassette tapes in the mail with our favorite songs. I can remember the day when he said, “This next song has a drum solo and you have to hear it.” It was XYZ from Rush, Exit Stage Left.
Gary: Did your parents buy you a drum set?
Andy: I did end up getting a snare drum and then I got a bass drum at a pawnshop. So for two years all I had were those two things, which was fine, and I swear I learned to play every Blondie song on those two drums. I was really into that. Then my friend sent me that Rush tape which totally destroyed my life! It was like dropping a nuclear bomb on me. Neil Peart, I couldn’t even wrap my head around it. I didn’t even know what he was doing and I think that’s what always drove me to new music. It wasn’t because I thought it was cool. It was because I didn’t even understand it. I was like, “How is this man making all these sounds?” So that got me into Rush. It was really the drumming. I didn’t even care about the music at the time. The music was just something for the drums to play in. But that took my drumming to a whole different place because it was like a lifetime of lessons there. Going from straight time into odd time and all that other crazy stuff that Peart does.
Andy - Pentatonic - Performance:
Gary: You would practice on your kick and snare in the house?
Andy: My mom was extremely patient. It was crazy, I would come home and play Rush albums from beginning to end as best as I could. I was obsessed with that for a long time. It was great but also was at my own peril because I was so focused that I didn’t listen to anything else, which is not really a good thing.
Gary: Yeah, but that probably helped your chops and your mind, playing all that complex stuff.
Andy: If you’re going to obsess over a drummer he’s a good one. It’s not like you’re obsessing over AC/DC or something you know, everything is different all the time with Neil Peart’s drumming and that’s good. It kept me very challenged. Then Stewart Copeland came along and him and Neil were kind of like my two obsessions which worked great because they played off each other so well. Neil was all about predictability and doing it exactly the same way every time and Stewart never does it the same way twice. So it really helped me to loosen up and not be so dogmatic about getting things ‘right’ every time.
Gary: Yeah, helped you bring a little improv into your playing?
Andy: Yeah. And groove. As great as Neil is he’s not really a groove player.
Gary: Yeah. I feel that way about him and somebody like Dave Weckl. They’re very technically amazing but the groove is not quite there.
Andy: I feel like I learned it backwards. The groove is really the foundation and all the other stuff is the house. I built the house first and then I learned about foundation afterwards. I couldn’t play a groove back in those days but I could play 32nd notes on a high hat in 7/8 all day long. So it was really weird. I couldn’t play dance music.
Gary: So when did the foundation come in for you?
Andy: I’m still working on it, honestly. (laughs) That was more Stewart and then branching out from there I got into Level 42 and a band called Marillion which nobody knows about them in the United States.
Gary: At this point you’re in high school?
Andy: Yeah, just out of high school. Marillion was a whole different style more like slow, halftime progressive rock stuff but lots of heart feeling behind it. Lot’s of nuance. And that was great because I felt like I was missing that. I didn’t have a lot of feel. The drummer, Ian Mosley, puts all kinds of little ghost notes and other nuances into his playing. I could just repeat things very well. I didn’t know how to feel what I was playing. I didn’t know what that was. Again, it’s that kind of backwards thing. Learning the technique and then learning the feel secondly. A lot of great drummers went at it the other way.
Gary: Interesting. Myself, I always envied players like you because I could never "get" the technical “chops” as well as others.
Speaking of learning things, I'd like to ask you about your Didgeridoo playing. You’re an exceptional didgeridoo player. When did you start playing didgeridoo?
Andy performing drums and didgeridoo:
Andy: That was in 1995 when I lived in Seattle for a year. I never thought I would play a wind instrument. I’d tell people I don’t blow into sticks, I hit things with sticks. (laughs) Didgeridoo was something I saw in Seattle at a festival with a band named Trance Mission with a guy named Stephen Kent. I was blown away that that instrument could be played like a rhythm instrument. So really it was an extension of drums. The rhythmic aspect. And it was again, I didn’t even really like the sound but it was more of that curiosity, like, I don’t understand this and that’s why I was drawn to it. Because I wanted to learn how you could possibly make those sounds with the hollow branch. Then I fell in love with the sound afterwards. But that was just a fluke that I happened to be at a concert where the guy was playing Didgeridoo. It was loud out of the PA so it really sounded good. And that’s really what got me into that instrument.
Gary: Okay. So Didgeridoo was in 1995. Let’s backup to where we left off before. Just out of high school you were playing drums and you played in a couple of bands?
Andy: So there were couple weird bands I was in. One was called Wavelength and another called Lestat, named after the Anne Rice character for reasons I’ll never know (laughs), and they were the very progressive rock-type bands. We were trying to be like all of those prog rock bands and doing a pretty good job of it but it was almost ridiculous how much we would overplay the shit out of everything. We were all decent players but you know we’re in a nightclub with “big hair” bands like Pretty Boy Floyd and we’re playing a cover of Supper’s Ready by Genesis which is like this 25 minute epic that goes into 9/8 time and it was just stupid. It was cool but it was just, we were trying to serve caviar to people that wanted burgers. It was so dumb, you know….but it was great. I also learned that year that you don’t get laid by playing progressive rock (laughs). So that was in LA and then when I moved to Sonoma County I got into other bands that were a little more fun.
Gary: You were raised in LA?
Andy: Yes. Then I moved to Sonoma County in ‘91. I started playing, still progressive, but more on the punk side of things. Primus kind of stuff. Harder-hitting and more accessible but still weird.
Gary: So from Sonoma County you moved to Seattle?
Andy: I did. A short stint. I was there for a year. That’s where I found didgeridoo and then I came back and added that.
Gary: Speaking of adding that, you built a unique stand system for a couple of didgeridoos that attaches to your drum kit so you can play didgeridoo and drums at the same time.
Andy: Yeah, and that wasn't the intent either. When I made that stand I was in a band called the Groove Merchants, we were like a world music thing, and I wanted to play Didgeridoo when I wasn’t playing drums, just as another instrument. It didn’t even occur to me to try to play them together until the band broke up and I was stuck with this Didgeridoo stand a drum kit in my bedroom and I just started messing around trying to do them both together and it was like, “Wow, this sounds cool I’d like to maybe do something with it.” So that was really why I started that. It wasn’t because I set out to. It was just an accident of the band breaking up.
Gary: Okay, so you were in Seattle for a year, got interested in the didgeridoo and came back to Sonoma County and you started expanding your playing with the Didgeridoo drumset. I know you’ve done some great solo work with that.
Andy: Yeah, I did a bunch of solo stuff. It was the only thing I was doing for a while because I was so tired of the band thing. I was feeling some level of success with the solo act because people would come to it and then I got to keep all the money which was nice too. (laughs) So then I made a little website about it and got hired by an Internet company to play at a trade show. This is like the .com era so it kind of just took off more. I also got into doing school assemblies. From there where I was able to make a CD of this new weird music and sell it to pay for itself. I’ve been doing that off and on ever since. I’ve changed it all around with a new drum kit and a couple of new electronic things I’ve added.
Gary: So you made this Didgeridoo drum set and recorded a couple CDs and then you also, being an inventor, you’ve done some amazing sculpture type things. You created a gigantic piece of artwork for the Handcar Regatta.
Screaming Vortex at Handcar Regatta:
Andy: I always worked in metal fabrication and machining. I seem to pick up jobs doing that since I’ve moved here and so there was always scrap bins and I was able to use the shop to build stuff. So, yeah, I built a crazy contraption for the Regatta a couple years in a row because I knew some people that were putting it on. Then I started building weird didgeridoo hybrids from the scrap metal. Putting strings on a didgeridoo. It all just came from weird shapes I found in the scrap bin. It’s not really something I set out to do as much is I was just inspired by what I could make a didgeridoo out of. I’ve built about 5 or 6 weird instruments and I just keep using them to record and perform with.
Stringed Didgeridoo - Nebula:
Gary: In playing the drums you said you built the house and then found foundation later. Can you talk a bit about how you found your foundation?
Andy: I’m still always trying to figure that out. I’m finding that the more I let myself just sink into something and get out of my head... it’s kind of like an endless meditation or practice. That’s what I’m working towards. After seeing people like Victor Wooten and different players that really push the idea of feeling it before you play it, which is still something new to me. I’m trying to come from that place more and more. When I play something... to really feel it in my body instead of like having it all be in my head. It seems a small shift but it’s actually really huge because it affects the entire way that I play.
Gary: How do you feel it in your body first? Do you think about how it’s going to feel?
Andy: It’s more like my body actually kind of starts to move a little bit before. It’s more like that. I’m just feeling the music and the pulse. I can feel the pulse in my body and then I can start playing to that instead of just pulling it straight from my brain to the kit. It’s a subtle thing but it’s really profound. People way better than me preach that. And it’s kind of a lesson for life in general. Get out of your head and get into your body first. If you do that everything just works better. It’s kind of one of those weird metaphors.
Gary: That’s a hard practice. A lot of a lot of really great drummers come from playing gospel music in the church, which is a more emotional, body experience.
Andy: Yeah. Even the whole idea of channeling, I know it sounds cheesy, but the idea of letting it come through you instead of being the originator of it. I don’t know how much of that I believe but again, people I respect a lot claim that the music is just happening through them. There’s certainly something to that I think. But for me it’s really just about getting out of my head a little bit before I play. It makes such a difference. For performances too. Getting up there and just kind of sitting in silence for a couple of seconds before I play. It’s excruciating because you think that in those two seconds the audience is going to get bored or you think that it’s way longer than it is. But it never is. Then when you start playing from that quiet place it just seems like it sets the mood for the whole gig. It’s a simple but not an easy thing to do.
Gary: Yeah I’ve experienced some of that. I try to do that with my improv band, Earstu.
Andy: It’s a trip. I think that’s where it almost becomes a sort of spiritual practice or grounding. It really makes such a difference for me. It’s kind of like that going in first and then just doing it. It’s such a strange thing because you;re playing for the audience but some of the best shows come from when you don’t care if the audience is there or not. Which, if you don’t care if the audience is there then why are you even performing? (laughs) But there is something to it... it’s not “not caring” it’s more just grounding myself. I’m not just throwing myself out there but I’m getting prepared to do whatever it is that happens. That’s where “finding the groove” comes for me. That’s the best way I can describe it.
Gary: Your a musician and an inventor. Does your inventive nature play a role or have a relation to your music? Of course, in concrete ways it does, like inventing that didgeridoo stand for the drum set, etc. But are there emotional ways the two come together?
Andy: I think the inventing stuff is always been about throwing stuff together and see what happens and then sometimes something good comes of it. Sometimes it’s intentional but other times it’s literally throwing shapes together and seeing what comes out. I have been doing this thing where I will go up on stage and start a piece doing something that I have no idea what it’s going to be and it’s scary but it always works. I’ll just start playing a pattern that I’ve never played before.
Andy's Screaming Vortex at the Regatta:
Gary: That’s interesting because that’s inventing right there on the spot.
Andy: And there’s a lot of trust in there too because it’s like, “Oh, my God, is this going to suck?” (laughs) As long as I don’t go too fast, that’s the thing. I’ll start a pattern with something I’m not usually comfortable doing. I won’t use my typical beats that I usually launch into but doing something a little bit like, it’s hard to explain,... something like playing the rim of the snare drum and the bell of a high hat in some weird five pattern and just sitting with it. Almost like coming from silence and starting a weird 5 pattern but once I start it I’m committed to it. Now I’ve got to do something with this because there’s an audience so it’s like it’s really scary but really cool. Really cool things will come out of that if I don’t panic and just be with it. Another thing is just play the same pattern without any fills for a little while because fills are often a way for me to escape and hide behind. If I just play a groove and let it mature and sink into it, then I’m in it. Then I can go from there and see what happens. When I’ve been brave enough to try that it seems like, almost always, a really cool new piece comes out that I never would’ve thought of. It’s taking that risk. It’s even more so because with inventing you’re at a shop and nobody sees when you screw up but if you do it in front of people it’s in real time. It can be scary but it never seems to go bad. I mean, I guess if it went really bad I could just stop and make a joke or something but it never has yet. I recently wrote a new piece based on something like that. Just because it was like, “Let’s do something I’m totally uncomfortable with but not difficult to do and just run with it. That’s probably the best way I could describe bringing inventing into performing or playing. I recommend it to anybody but it’s really hard to do, especially if there’s people involved. Because, I get afraid. I’ll fall back on the same patterns over and over again because I know I can. But I get bored with it too. It’s like, “I’ve played the same pattern for five songs now or variations of it. So it’s good for me to expand my mind, to use that little bit of fear of the audience to force me to be creative. I’m not as good at doing that kind of stuff by myself. I mean, I can once in a while but I’d I have a hard time just making up weird stuff by myself. Sometimes it takes an audience to like hold me to it.
Gary: I’d like to talk a bit about your patented invention, the SlapStick.
Andy: So the Slapstick was another accidental creation. I was at a job site and they had a shipping crate with a metal band wrapped tightly around it. It had a gap underneath it. The metal band wasn’t tight. It was actually floating above the top of the box and I just smacked it when I walked by and it made a tone. So I went over and started playing the box and hitting it because that’s what drummers do, right, hit everything. (laughs) It kind of never left my mind that night. I was thinking, “Man, what would that sound like with a pick up on it?" I had a bass pick up at home and a small amp so I brought it to work the next day and held it over the metal band and smacked it and it sounded like a bass guitar playing along with my drum beats. I knew I had to create an instrument that worked off of that idea.
Gary: How long after you thought about that did you actually trying to make one?
Andy: I started that day looking at ideas in the scrap bin for how it could work. It was the square tubing that came to me. I probably made a prototype a week later. It was very crude but it was a tall sticks with a stretched band across it. I mounted the pick-up inside and it was kind of like, “Holy shit this thing is cool. I can play it like a drum but it’s to making tones.” I’ve also always loved slap bass so I knew that was a possibility with guitar or bass strings. So it turned into a bass for drummers.
Gary: You proceeded to make the prototype and get a patent. Initially it was a larger stick and you called it the Slaperoo?
Andy: It was 5 feet tall and I called it the Slaperoo, which was just a name that I liked. I forget where I heard it but it was unique on the web too, which is really the reason I chose it because no one else was using it. But I moved to the Slapstick and changed Slaperoo to the company name. It’s a cool name but it almost doesn’t sound serious enough so I changed the instrument to Slapstick and streamlined it. I came up with the smaller one and I call it a Noodle. It was really an attempt to make a toy version of it and it turned into the main product because it sounded somewhat is better than the big one.
Gary: You introduced that at the NAMM Show in 2011? I know it was a big hit there.
Andy: Yeah, but it was kind of overwhelming. People were freaking out because it was so unusual and it caught a couple celebrities interest. Steve Amani, from India, was the first big one. Then Dr. Lonnie Smith, whom I ended up going to Israel with, as a road manager. That was fun! It threw me into this whole world I hadn’t been in before. I hadn’t traveled like that. I was in Israel with Dr. Lonnie Smith watching him play an instrument that I built him.
Hanging with Dr. Lonnie Smith:
Gary: I know Stevie Wonder came to your NAMM booth and he now has a few SlapSticks?
Andy: Yeah. Stevie has 3 of them. I talk to his guy periodically and he tells me Stevie likes them a lot. So that’s cool and kind of surreal.
Hanging with Stevie Wonder:
Gary: You also go to the Maker Faire. Does that have anything to do with your Slapstick?
Andy: Mostly the SlapStick although I was just shifting my focus back to doing my performances, my drum and didgeridoo stuff more. But last year was the last Maker Faire. They stopped it. They canceled it.
Gary: Is the SlapStick available to the public through your website?
Gary: Are you presently doing live performance?
Andy's Mondo's Beam:
Andy: Yes, I do my own solo stuff these days and I have some people I play with but no “official” band.
Gary: You just recently did something at the Redwood Cafe?
Andy: Yes. That was with Hoitus, from Peoples Music. He’s in a band and they hire me once in a while to play with them.
Gary: You’ve also invented something else called The Green Machine. A small drum kit?
Andy: Yeah. The Green Machine is a cocktail kit designed after cocktail kits from the 40s. I loved those kits when I first played one but they never had a hi-hat that works because you play standing up and your 1 foot, that you’re not standing on, plays the bass drum. So I developed a hi-hat system that lets you play the hi-hat with your heel by lifting up your heel. It’s worked out so well for me that it’s been my main kit for about four years now. It allows me to play standing up and it’s also really small so I can just roll on and off the stage real fast.
Gary: Do you incorporate your didgeridoo playing with that?
Andy: Oh yes. I made my didgeridoo stand taller so it would work with me standing up. It’s really the only kit I use for my solo stuff nowadays. I also added something called a Wave Drum, an electronic drum which adds a whole different palate of sounds.
Green Machine featuring the Graham Hi Hat Pedal:
Gary: You’re an amazing player and inventor. Do you have any expert drumming and/or inventing advice for young folks just starting out?
Andy: As far as drumming advice goes, I think for me what has always worked is not allowing yourself to be limited by rules. Always try new things and, Thomas Lange says this a lot, mix everything with everything. I’m really working on the ambidextrous thing. Doing everything forward and backwards. Every time you do a pattern, let’s say paradiddles, also do them left right left left right left right left, with your hands and also do it with your feet. The same thing with your feet and then try left-hand left-foot. And then right hand. Also, try starting from silence and create on the spot. Try new stuff weird stuff by yourself when no one is listening. Sometimes great things come out of rebelling against the norms.
Andy playing his Slapstick:
Gary: Andy, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. You’ve certainly given some insight into how your “inventors mind” works. I’m looking forward to your next performance.
I encourage everyone to check out Andy Graham’s website and social media to get involved in all the amazing things he’s created and creating. We will check in soon.
Want your very own SlapStick? Check Link Below: