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Published: 2005/10/13
by Charlie Dirksen

Rodney Holmes 12 Months of October

Editor’s note: The second of our consecutive monthly pieces on the Steve Kimock Band features a conversation with drummer Rodney Holmes. As if that weren’t enough, we are happy to have the illustrious Charlie Dirksen return to the site and conduct the interview. Charlie has written for us off and on over the past seven years and we always welcome his contributions.

As for Holmes, this is shaping up to be quite a month for him. Not only is he currently on tour with Kimock and a new line-up of Robert Walter and Reed Mathis, but Holmes also will be on the cover of the December issue of Modern Drummer magazine. Meanwhile, he is putting the finishing touches on his first solo album, 12 Months of October. In the interview that follows, Holmes shares his perspective on performing and recording, spells out why the SKB is not a jamband, and explains how “it’s all just starting to come together” for him now.

CD: You’ve played with Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Don Byron, the Brecker brothers, and a lot of fantastic jazz musicians. What prompted you to play with Steve Kimock? His music is obviously very different from, say, Don Byron’s in particular.

RH: Well, that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to [play with Kimock], because it’s very different. I love playing with Don and I still work with Don. I’m going to be recording a Junior Walker project CD with him in December. And I still work with Randy Brecker and other people, and hopefully I’ll be playing with my own project when [my new solo] record is done. But with Steve, that’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to [play with him] he’s coming from a different perspective. I think that even though we’re coming from two different perspectives, the paradox of this whole thing is that I think we’re kind of going for the same thing. We just have a different way of going about it. So when it’s working, I think it works really well.

CD: You mentioned how Kimock has a different perspective. Is there anything you can point to that he has taught you? How has Kimock’s perspective informed your own?

RH: I think that with the audience that comes to see SKB, the core audience, the people who have been going to see him with Zero or KVHW for years, there’s a certain atmosphere that they relate to, that Steve creates, aside from his great playing.

CD: That atmosphere has been called “church” by some fans.

RH: Right. There’s a certain Northern California vibe that I just wasn’t privy to. I mean, when I play and when I’m really tuned in and I’m being moved by what’s happening, it almost feels like church to me, too. But it’s a different kind. And I think understanding the kind of atmosphere that he creates has been beneficial to me, because it’s a different approach. It’s a way of approaching things that I never would have thought of if I hadn’t played with him. . . . And I think, vice versa. I think there might have been some things that he wouldn’t have come up with before we played together.

CD: I’m certain of that. But how would you if you even can compare the sort of improvisation you’ve been doing routinely night after night with Steve Kimock Band to what you were doing, say, on tour with Santana when I last saw you play with him in April 1999 at the Fillmore?

RH: With Santana it wasn’t true improvisation. I was trying to bring some things to the table to support Carlos and to support what everyone was doing. You know, just basically holding it together, and picking those moments where things needed to be added, picking [my] spots. And if I thought there was something that was needed, I would try to bring that. And then most of the improvising [would occur] when I had a feature by myself and everyone would go off stage, and then I would play by myself and that’s where most of my improvising happened. With Santana, the songs were so structured even the length of solo spaces. Sometimes there would be more room, but when you have that many percussionists on stage, the best thing to do is try to be as solid and to make it feel as good as possible, and to have the chops and the ability to bring stuff to the table when it’s necessary. And then when it was time for me to speak, I would speak. But with Steve, being a quartet and having much more room to kind of paint, and react, it’s a completely different animal.

CD: It’s far more dynamic.

RH: It’s far more dynamic, even though there’s still song structure and it’s still very tune-oriented, it’s way more dynamic. Another thing I wanted to say {about SKB] is that even though we’re playing in a certain scene, and playing in certain places, I do not consider us to be a “jamband,” and that’s kind of a misconception that, unfortunately, I think, sometimes keeps other people from coming to see the band. You know, when you hear that term, “jamband,” [some people] have the impression that it’s just a bunch of

CD: Noodlers.

RH: Noodling guys, noodling hippies on stage. And [SKB] isn’t that. It’s a real concept, a real sound, with songs, and there is improvisation as well. I just wanted to mention that. I mean no disrespect to any bands or anyone.

CD: I’m sure. “Jam band” has to some people become a label for bands that improvise[aimlessly . . . With respect to Eudemon, the SKB album that was just released a few months ago, but which was recorded over a year ago, do you recall anything particularly memorable about making it? Do you have any favorite tunes on the album?

RH: I really like “One for Brother Mike.” I like “Moon People” I just like the sonic nature of it.

CD: Is SKB going to start playing “Moon People” again? I had noticed its absence and I’m sure others have, too.

RH: We will start playing that again. And I also thought “Ice Cream” came out fairly well and “Bronx Experiment” is really strong. The original version of that is on my new record as well. But for me those were the highlights, just as a listener, just putting Eudemon on and hearing something that it just sounds like something that I wouldn’t normally hear.

CD: You and Steve have collaborated with a heck of a lot of bassists, and some keyboardists, since you guys started playing together five years ago. The buzz right now about the current line-up is like nothing I’ve seen since, well, since you started playing with Steve five years ago. Some people are raving about it. What is your perspective? I know it’s a difficult question, since you’re still touring, still growing together, learning how to play together, but how would you at least compare what you’re going through now with Robert Walter on keyboards and Reed Mathis on bass to previous line-ups ?

RH: Well, I think that the line-up that we have now works better because number one, the timbres are very different between Robert and Steve. Instead of having two guitars and a keyboard, it’s just a guitar and a keyboard.

CD: And Robert has a Rhodes as well as a Hammond.

RH: And the Rhodes, I think, is probably the greatest instrument ever invented. I wrote most of my material on the Rhodes. It’s just a phenomenal instrument and it blends so well with guitar and within any style of American music. It just sounds great. So that’s a huge plus, besides the fact that Robert plays very well. He’s got a great groove and a great sense of timing, and his feel, so that’s a plus. And Reed has been a plus having good energy and willing to really plug in to the music and funnel his energy into the music, and to really hook-up with the drums.

I think we’ve had those elements in the band in the past, but I think [SKB now] is just a combination of the right instrumentation at the right time. But I loved when Alfonso [Johnson] was in the band, and we had a couple good line-ups when Mitch [Stein] was in the band, but the way things are being funneled right now, there’s a good thing happening. There’s still a lot of work to do with this group. I don’t know why the buzz is better now than it was before. That’s something I will never understand, why audiences react the way they react [laughs]. You know what I mean? But I do think that the band is in a good place and I know with this instrumentation that, sonically, we have an opportunity to really get the music sounding the way it was intended to sound. This is something that is exciting for me.

CD: That’s great. You’ve actually played in a lot of different musical formats in your, I guess, over twenty-five years of playing I mean, how long have you been playing the drums?

RH: [Laughs] Oh, God, I don’t even want to think of how old I am.

CD: You don’t want to give away your age, do you?

RH: [Laughing] You know, the funny thing is, I feel like I’m just beginning. I feel like I’m just starting, I’m just starting to get a handle. I’ve been so fortunate to play with Wayne Shorter, and Michael and Randy Brecker. Those were the greatest moments. It’s been great and I learned so much. But, you know, I’m evolving. And I think with every quantum leap, or every evolutionary step, even though it’s painful, I think most people would agree that one feels like they’re just beginning. That, you know, or I shouldn’t I guess I should only speak for myself. I feel like I’m just starting, like it’s all just now starting to come together.

*CD: Do you have a preference for any particular format? Do you like there being a lot of open spaces in the music, such as in a highly improvisational, instrumental format, or do you like mixing it up or *

RH: I like mixing it up. The way I look at music, I try to see what the music needs for it to do what it was intended to do. And sometimes the music needs room for improvisation. Sometimes it needs a lot of room for improvisation. Sometimes it needs to be right to the point. So I think on a tune by tune basis, a show by show basis, a project by project basis, I try not to I mean, yes, it’s fun to have that improvisational groove, but I get just as much joy out of just playing the song. My ideal situation is to have a combination of both. And that’s difficult to do.

CD: Are you missing vocals these days?

RH: I don’t know. I’m not really missing it. I’ve been asked to sing on one or two tunes, and there’s a possibility that [SKB] may do some vocal stuff. I mean it won’t turn into it’s not going to turn into Bon Jovi.

CD: [laughing] Well thank God for that!

RH: [laughs] Just maybe here and there, to have some well-placed lyrics, and to have that sound.

CD: You sang “Message in a Bottle” [with SKB] earlier this year. What prompted you to pull that one out?

RH: I don’t know. I grew up listening to The Police and I sing a tune on my record, and a couple people heard it, and they were like, “Can you sing a song [with SKB]?” And I’m not going to sing a love song. I thought “Message in a Bottle” was a fun tune and a tune that everyone knew. It was an easy tune to get up and running. So we did it and it was fun. We may end up doing a couple vocal things, and maybe even a couple of original vocal things. But it’s a work in progress. We’re just trying to bring it all together and define the sound and expand, but still keep it very focused, you know, just to get it.

CD: I hesitate a little to ask you this . . . There’s only one criticism of your playing that I’ve ever heard on any consistent basis and [only one] because obviously you see it every time you play people are usually floored by your playing, just completely blown over. But the only criticism that I’ve heard is that you sometimes play with such incredible power and ferocity that you seem to almost punish the music, performing like you have something to prove. . . . And I know that Bruce Lee is one of your influences. Maybe you’re just channeling your inner Bruce Lee sometimes during these jams and if people can’t appreciate it or understand it, then maybe they should just get out of the way. I’m just curious, how do you respond to this criticism, assuming you have any response at all except “Hey, mileage may vary”?

RH: Well, I certainly don’t feel I have anything to prove. I’m sorry they feel that way. I don’t know what to say. I do what I can on a night by night basis.

CD: . . . I think some people come to an SKB performance from a very different kind of background [than yours]. One which is very hippy-dippy.

RH: [laughs] I think that the music that I listen to, or have listened to there’s lots of different kinds of music that I like, different artists that I’ve liked. And some of those artists, I would venture to say, probably wouldn’t be on their lists of favorite artists. I love electronic music, there’s certain metal that I like, there’s all sorts of music that I like. There’s certain kinds of jazz that I love. So, all of that stuff has become a part of me, and has been assimilated into my playing. It’s like a synthesis of things that have touched me. And I try to be as honest as possible and hopefully it comes out sounding like me and sounding like something that’s unique. Some of that stuff may sound aggressive to those people. But what are you going to do? It’s like as my mother always told me, “You can’t please everyone.” The only thing I can do is try to be honest, try to be tasteful, but I can’t be afraid to be myself and to give the music what I think it needs at the time. I’m sure in retrospect maybe there were some times where I played too much, or maybe there were some times where I didn’t play enough.

CD: But you’re your own worst critic, aren’t you?

RH: Oh, believe me, I don’t think anybody criticizes me more than me. [laughs] So, you know, if some of the hippies don’t like what I’m doing, then that’s OK.

CD: [Laughing] Most Kimock fans love what you’re doing. In fact, if there was ever a Kimock band that should have its own name, it’s the current line-up of SKB . . . In fact when I heard five years ago that you would be playing with Steve, I thought . . . the name [SKB] would have to change. Were there ever any plans to change the name of the band from SKB to something else, if only back then?

RH: [Laughs] We did talk about it for a little bit but at the time, the core audience that Steve had was so into him. . . . Also, I was bringing in new material that a lot of his fans didn’t like, so I felt like I was the villain for awhile.

CD: A song like “Sabertooth, “ people who have a background with Steve’s music with Zero or KVHW either love Sabertooth or they just can’t handle it, because it’s so foreign to their experience that they go “What the hell is this!?” They just can’t relate to it. My initial reaction to “Sabertooth” in fact was exactly that. I did not have any significant experience or background with electronic music back then. Since then, thanks to your influence, I have been a hell of a lot more open-minded about it I had to ask you to answer the criticism that you sometimes overplay because it was frankly the only criticism that I’d ever heard of your playing.

RH: Well, like I said, everyone has good nights and bad nights, and nights where they hit it in the right spot, and hit the right zone, but I think overall that there were just some fans who weren’t really all that crazy about me to begin with. And that’s OK. At first I was a little I felt kinda bad about it. And so whenever I went back into other situations, I would feel more comfortable. But then when I came back and played with Steve, I was always a little hesitant to talk to people. But I just figured, look, I was asked to be here, I was asked to contribute. And I think if we really do this thing honestly, it may turn off some people, but it will gain other people. And so I guess it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.

Again, I think there’s a certain edge that they don’t like. It’s not about proving anything. If they really listen, I mean, it’s like, you mentioned church. I’m not a religious person. But I did grow up in the Baptist church. And one of the things I remember, one of my fond memories, was the power of not only the music, but when the people were really involved, when they were really moved, it was incredible. It was moving it would move people to tears. And you’d have this whole congregation on one wavelength. And I think even more than the Holy Spirit, that it was just that feeling of community and the strength of the music that healed people when they left. There’s a certain power in that. And there’s a certain edge to it. And I don’t think some people see it that way. There is something very strong and inspiring at the same time. And I think with certain hippie-types, maybe that’s a part of the music [laughs] that they don’t really understand if that makes any sense at all.

*CD: It does make sense but I think a lot of the criticism I mentioned is due to the double bass pedal. I know this is an ultra-simplistic take, but I honestly believe that when the double bass is used to its full effectiveness it can be an overwhelming experience for people who aren’t used to it. They immediately think they’re being assaulted. You use that damn pedal better than anyone else I know *

RH: [laughing] There are guys who are way faster than me and can do things on the double bass much more than me. But the way I try to use it I try to be effective with it.

*CD: Well you are, and since everyone can’t handle it, this just shows that you are using it effectively . . . some people at certain times can’t handle aspects of your playing. I think they find it terrifying *

RH: Obviously those people have never heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

CD: [laughing] By the way, do you know how many Grammys you have?

RH: I’ve read that I have thirteen Grammys, and I have no idea where that came from. I have eight Grammys. Actually, technically, you know what? There are nine. Eight came from [Carlos Santana’s] Supernatural record that I played on, and one came from the Brecker Brothers. It won for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance and that was for Out of the Loop on a tune called “African Skies.” And technically I never got that Grammy. Because it was in the Jazz category, they wouldn’t actually give the musicians a Grammy. They told us that we would have to pay for our own grammy. So I refused to pay for my own Grammy, and they said “Well, we can give you a certificate,” and I said, “I’ll take the damn certificate.” I wasn’t going to pay for my own Grammy.

CD: [Laughing] With respect to the album that you recently finished, 12 Months of October, how were you inspired to create it? Was it a work in process for many years?

RH: It was a work in progress for a few years. It originally started out as a quartet project, but it wasn’t really working out the way I thought it would, or the way I hoped it would, so I decided to completely change my direction. I was listening to a lot of different kinds of music at the time. I was listening a lot to the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, Portishead, DJ Shadow and Goldie and people like that, along with other music. I decided to go with where my heart and my head were at the time and start from scratch with a whole new batch of music. . . . I’ve never written and produced my own record before. So it was definitely a learning experience. I played, I guess, 95% of the keyboard parts and did most of the sound designing and a lot of the pre and post production. I was helped by a friend of mine by the name of Aaron Whitby, who is a very good producer but, for the most part, I did it myself. For awhile I was on the road at the same time, so whenever I was home, I would try to finish a track here or a track there, and so that’s how that came about.

CD: I heard from that 12 Months is a very sonically powerful album, and that it might even impress hypersensitive audiophiles. Are you pretty happy with it?

RH: You know, it’s weird, sometimes I’m happy with it and sometimes I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. It’s that emotional roller coaster, you know. When I try to step back and allow some objectivity to come over me, I’m pretty happy with the way it came out, in terms of what I set out to do. And even though there are elements of a lot of different kinds of music, the way it’s put together there are no real references for it. It is quite different. It does have its own sound so, in that sense, I’m pretty happy with how it came out. Of course, there are some things that I would have done differently in retrospect.

CD: That’s part of the process.

RH: Yeah, it’s a learning process . . . hopefully I’ve put enough care into it for it to have its own legs and life of its own.

CD: I noticed on your website that you thought your drumming had changed while you were creating this album. Can you explain?

RH: In terms of really having structured music and, at the same time, truly being able to improvise on it, it’s difficult to walk that line without it interrupting the forward motion or momentum of the song and also to bring life to it. It’s a tightrope. I didn’t want [the album] to sound like a totally improvised thing. Obviously there are very set song structures.

But what I did was first lay down the click track, in certain sequences, just to get it up and running, and then play to it in a way that didn’t sound like I was playing to a sequence. That was a challenge, to make it feel natural, to make it feel live. That was a challenge for me. In the past, prior to me recording this record, whenever I was hired to play on people’s records, a lot of times there was a click track or sequence I had to play to, and I would just concentrate on being very exact and precise. And I was just getting to the point where I was starting to work on loosening things up, like applying some of my ideas, what I’m feeling in the moment, to that kind of a situation where I had to be very precise, because there were machines running with me.

So, I really ran into that brick wall head on during the recording of my record. All of my figures, all the things that I was feeling, my reactions, I really had to react through a different prism, making sure that my figures were very, very even. So even if it was something that I was doing in the spirit of the moment, even though it was loose, it still had to be preciseSo I think I went through a process. It changed the way I play.

CD: That’s fascinating. Did you happen to listen to any albums produced by drummers in connection with this project?

RH: There are a lot of records produced by drummers. A lot of times drummers either make a “drumming record” or they go in the opposite direction, where they almost take a minimalist approach [to drumming on the album] just to prove that they’re musical.

CD: [Laughing] It’s that old drummer’s insecurity.

RH: Yeah, to prove that they’re musical, they play hardly nothing. Some of my favorite records, whether they are pop, rock, soul or jazz, or whatever category people want to slap on music now, or electronic, it always had an honesty to it. It didn’t seem like it was trying to be anything other than what it was.

I didn’t want to not play in order to make it musical. I felt that I could express myself in a musical way and really speak with the drums within a song setting and that it could be done and people could relate to it. When I had to be very simple, when it was best for the song, I was extremely simple. And when I had to really bring something to the table, playing-wise, I tried to bring it, but within the setting of the song or of the mood. And it’s a little bit more of a challenge when you’re doing it with electronic-based music. I shouldn’t say challenging, but this was something that I wasn’t used to. So when I came through the process, I realized that I’d learned a lot and it had changed my playing.

CD: When do you think 12 Months of October will be released, or do you even know yet? Do you have a label yet?

RH: I don’t have a label and the reason why I didn’t go through that process is that if I’d spoken with any labels while making the album, if they had heard some of the unfinished material, then I might have been influenced by their opinions. People would say, “Oh, if it was more like this, then it would be easier for you to get signed, or if it were more like that, it would be easier for you to get signed.” I just wanted to be totally free from those influences and just finish the thing, for better or for worse, and then see what the reaction is. And if someone wants to put it out, great. If I can get distribution, fantastic. And if I can’t, then at least I was honest with this project, with this music, and I wanted to give this music a chance on its own.

Charlie Dirksen is a lawyer in San Francisco and also a co-founder and officer of The Mockingbird Foundation, a non-profit started by Phish fans that raises money to benefit music education for children programs nationwide. In the interest of full disclosure, he is a former drummer, and is also the List Owner and Administrator of the Kimock discussion and Kimock-Announce e-mail lists.

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