Artist Profile: Ian McColm

DSC_6881One of the great things about living in Alexandria, VA is the breadth of fascinating people residing here. I met Ian at one of my favorite coffee shops in town. They always have good music playing- usually jazz. I think we started talking about something that was playing on the sound system and I soon found out that he was a jazz drummer (who studied with the great Billy Hart, no less), composer, and multi-instrumentalist.

Ian’s music is intense, beautiful, and deeply layered. His journey in this art form is just as unique. After the interview, be sure to click on the links at the bottom of the page to hear samples of his work!

JB: Growing up, did anyone in your family play a musical instrument?

IM: Not really, but I found out later that my grandfather was a drummer before World War II.

JB: A jazz drummer?

IM: It was big band, but I don’t know how much he gigged. I know he played live and he was really into Gene Krupa. I didn’t really know any of that until I started taking in interest in drums, and then my aunt and my dad told me. What they remember is him sitting in at cocktail parties if there was a band; but if there wasn’t, he would come home and pull all of the pots and pans out of the cabinets and start playing with a pair of drumsticks that he kept hidden in the house.

JB: What a character! Did your parents play music around the house?

IM: My dad is really into music, and he played clarinet in high school. He’s very much into classic rock and then sort of record nerd stuff, like John Fahey, who I remember hearing at a very early age. He had a storage unit in New Jersey that got liquidated without his knowledge, which is a bummer, because supposedly he had most of the Columbia jazz stuff up to like, 1976, first press. He would go to the record store every time records would be released- a lot of it was Miles Davis. He’s a huge Miles Davis guy; not as much of a Coltrane dude. I’m more of a Coltrane dude than he is.

JB: So because he didn’t have those records by the time you were around, did you hear that stuff when you were growing up?

IM: I did, but I didn’t latch on. It was just sort of around. I was really into guitar, but not in the sense that I really understood good guitar playing. It was that music with sick guitar playing usually had good drummers. I was very much listening to drummers. I was one of those kids who did a lot of different hobbies but nothing stuck. I think my parents eventually got pretty frustrated with it. I was like, “I want to do karate. Ugh, this sucks. I want to learn Japanese. Ugh, this sucks.” I think I did that a few times, but my parents were smart and didn’t let me do a lot of stuff like that.

JB: Did you start playing guitar or drums first?

IM: Drums. I was eight. There was this other kid taking drum lessons and I hadn’t realized before that that was a thing. My first experience touching a drum set was when my mom had a teaching conference, and I was being babysat by one of the other teacher’s teenage sons. Cool dude, but maybe not the best babysitter! He was like, “Uh, you like rock? Want to hear some Pantera?” You know what I mean? He had a drum set downstairs and he was like, “Yeah, do whatever on the drum set.” So it was just an hour of me going crazy on it. So after that and finding out that this other kid was taking lessons, I was like, I want to do this.

But then my mom was like, I’m not going to buy a drum set for this kid and have him totally bail on it. So I started studying with a guy and my mom expressed her resistance to buy me a drum set, to which he said it would be okay to do a year or so with a practice pad. So I did that for about a year and a half and have never thought about quitting since then. Practicing stickings on a practice pad for that long is just about one of the most brutal things you can do to an eight-year-old kid, because there’s really no sound coming back at you. I looked forward to lessons because I was like, I get to play a drum set this week. Also, knowing that there would be a payoff because I’d be able to get a drum set after sticking with it for that long.

I had that drum set for about 3 years, and played that kit until I was about 13. Then I went to this rock day camp called Day Jams that National Guitar Workshop used to do, and that’s actually where I met guys who I still hang out with to this day. I went there three or four years and there was something really special about that camp. A lot of the guys I went there with are still playing music at a really high level today. There was just a great mix of the right teachers and counselors. A lot of these guys could play and were serious musicians in their own right. Then I met Evan Grice and Michael Mattice and we started playing together, playing little rock gigs around town, and then playing bigger rock gigs around town. That camp was really the impetus for most of my extra-curricular playing in those days.

JB: Did you also play in school band?

IM: I went to private school until high school and the band programs were pretty spotty. I had been playing since I was eight so I was a pretty good reader, but I didn’t understand the politics or mannerisms of playing in a large wind ensemble because I hadn’t really done that yet. Then I auditioned for band class in 9th grade at [T.C. Williams High School] Minnie Howard [campus] with Mr. Lutz. I eventually started playing in jazz combo (under the direction of Mr. Ambrose) after school and once I was in 10th grade I started hanging out during the big band rehearsals, even though I didn’t have space in my schedule for it. Then my last two years I was really getting serious about it [jazz drums].

JB: Was that your first experience playing jazz drums?

It took a lot for a record, even at that age, for me to be like, ‘what is this?’

IM: That was pretty much the first experience, but I had started listening to jazz around the age of ten. That was probably because of Olsson’s, which used to be a book and record shop at the end of King Street. That store was a huge part of my musical education. That staff was nuts. You had Jason Yawn who was in this band Trial By Fire on Jade Tree Records, that was a punk band. Then you had Leo Heinzel, a noise guy, who goes by Flesh Control, and he was also in a punk band called Group 36. You had this lady Vicki Hughes who is a documentarian, filmmaker, and amazing finger style guitarist; this dude Tim Barnes who was like really heavy into Delta Blues and free jazz. The hippest part about that store was hanging out there; there were about six years solid that I would hang there after school every day.

The first record I bought with my own money, I was 11 about to turn 12, and I went in there and I was like, “I want the fastest jazz record you have.” I was listening to Pantera at the time and I figured there had to be a jazz equivalent. There just has to be super fast, I want fast. And Tim threw me a curveball, like the hardest curveball you can possibly throw an 11-year-old. He was like, “Oh well John Coltrane’s last concert just got reissued.” The Olatunji concert. And he’s like, “That’s fast,” but he did “fast” in quotes and gave me a look. I was like, that means the record’s important, but the look probably meant, “I’m about to blow your mind.” I remember listening to it and being like, “What is this? This isn’t real- what?” Coltrane plays clarinet on that a little bit and gets to a point where he sounds like a woman screaming. I would be listening to it late at night on a CD Walkman and I kept taking off my earphones- I was like, what’s happening, someone’s getting hurt… you know what I mean? That happened for like 20 minutes and then I realized that was on there. That record did something weird, it tweaked a little switch there.

DSC_7364I think maybe six months after that I got Trout Mask Replica, the Captain Beefheart record. That is completely insane- that could be the strangest record ever made, because it sounds like the most unorganized rock and jazz pastiche with quasi-hippie-beatnik poetry stuff. And then when you find out that they were locked up in a house for eight onths working on this record, and they tracked the whole record in eight hours, it’s like, oh wait a sec… he knew exactly what he wanted.

There was also definitely a time, especially around when I was listening to Coltrane a lot, I got Indestructible, that Art Blakey record. The Jazz Messengers were huge for me when I was younger because Art Blakey played loud and the band was really tight. Also the dynamics were really big, which if you don’t understand how forms work in jazz, having those big dynamic changes holds your attention really well.

JB: So the last Trane record and Trout Mask Replica were huge influences.

IM: It took a lot for a record, even at that age, for me to be like, “what is this?” I sort of understood how genres worked, but then some of these things were totally beyond what the classification system for an 11-year-old was. And I think that’s the stuff that stuck out to me. The records that I hated at first, but couldn’t stop listening to. I kept going, “this sucks but why?” I didn’t understand it at all. That’s also a huge part of the reason I started playing jazz, because rock’s linear structure is so easy to understand. Then when you’re dealing with jazz, you’re like, wait, how does this work? It required you to hear a lot more in terms of harmony. Rock is very much like memorization of where you are, whereas with jazz you have to hear where you are.

JB: Did you study drums with anyone else before college?

IM: Myles Overton was huge for rudimental stuff for me and he helped with a lot of mallet percussion too- I started studying with him sophomore year in high school. I started studying with Harold Summey my junior year in high school. That was mostly kit stuff, and a little bit of snare. A lot of reading for drum set and also learning tunes.

JB: What was his approach for learning tunes?

IM: If I remember correctly, you had to be able to sing the tune while playing. Knowing the melody was huge. Later, when I started to recognize harmony, things really started opening up. That development is largely due to studying with Billy. I think that’s really the key point to being able to do something a little more fluid with a lot of that music. Instead of giving you less information, it’s giving you more general information which allows you to do more of your own thing with it, whereas the melody has its own smaller rhythmic structure.

JB: At Oberlin [Conservatory of Music], what was it like to study with Billy Hart?

IM: There was sort of a set amount of material that you had to have on hand at any given time. You sort of dictated the speed with which you worked through that material. I mean, obviously, there was a point where you were behind everyone else but if you could get it done in a year, do it. After that was when we started addressing more of my own stuff- asking more questions that maybe I was more curious about.

DSC_8833JB: What was his material?

IM: I hesitate to get too in depth, but it was a lot of different things. It wasn’t just, oh learn these rudimental solos, but that was part of it.

JB: When did you start composing?

IM: Before college, with rock bands. It was all by ear.

JB: What was your approach back then?

IM: I was writing on guitar and bass, but I wasn’t that great at those so it was a lot of trial and error. Find something that you think sounds good.

JB: When did you start developing the foundation for your compositional approach now?

IM: I started thinking about it a lot freshman year of college. Sophomore year we started that band Nagual with the guitar/bass stuff and that opened up a lot of things conceptually for me. And then junior year I started working on my first solo percussion/electronics thing. I had thought about it since freshman year but I now felt I was sort of ready to work on it, and I just planned on doing it for my senior recital. I booked a solo/solo tour with this guitar player Daniel Bachman for January of that year so I had to get a certain amount of material ready before that tour. It’s sort of like, how do you get a musician to practice? You give him a gig… but self-imposed.

…a huge part of my compositional process is sounds and the nature of sounds. I really don’t care if it’s a D or a Db, but if the sound doesn’t express itself in a certain way, then it doesn’t matter.

Something I realized over the course of doing all of this stuff was that you have rhythm, harmony, and melody, but then you have this weird wild card which is timbre or texture. I don’t necessarily have the best harmonic ears- I have a decent melodic sense, but that’s acquired, and my rhythmic sense is probably acquired from an earlier age- but something that I always heard was texture in terms of how sound was expressed. When I was younger there were certain records that I would put on and I didn’t know why I didn’t really like them. Later I came to realize that it was how they were recorded, where they were recorded, or the way certain players expressed sounds. When I got really heavy into noise and free jazz and non-idiomatic improvised music, [texture] is a huge part of all of that. Not that the others fall by the wayside, but it’s just that one’s more important than it is to a lot of people in other types of music. That’s the reason I think that I gravitated to it because it was part of the way that I heard already. It just made more sense to me. So a huge part of my compositional process is the nature of sounds and expressing sound in a way that is unique to my timbral taste. I really don’t care if it’s a D or a Db, but if the sound doesn’t express itself in a certain way, then it doesn’t matter.

JB: So is there an emotional response that a certain sound has or is it a color? How do you characterize one sound as being something and another sound as being something else? Or is it less concrete than any of that?

IM: It’s like different people. This is a weird analogy because I haven’t used it before, but it’s sort of like the environment that you’re trying to create is populated by such and such amount of people and you get to dictate who the people are. There could be, let’s say a D, but a D that has a little bit of overdrive to it and maybe some sort of weird filter, is like an aggressive, fast-talking dude. Whereas the other D is just a sine tone D with no personality. It’s like a combination of personality and flavor. A bass tone, like a low D or a low E, could be a woman, but if it has an envelope filter on it or something, it’s sort of sassy or whatever. When you’re composing, it’s sort of elitist: you get to curate a gathering of sorts, make the guest list.

JB: So it is sort of emotion, but more personality than just an emotion?

IM: It’s like there are characteristics but they are totally subjective. I’m sure there are some things that people would agree upon, but it’s just sounds that have certain personalities that are either complementary or not complementary to one another.

JB: When you’re composing, are you looking for sounds that are complementary to one another?

IM: I think a more important part is that you’re creating a certain aesthetic space for each sound to reside in. There’s something in the initial sounds that you’ve chosen that dictate a space, and since you’re the composer, the sounds that you introduce later on are subjective. You can sort of find ways to either be that space, or maybe expand it, or maybe even make it less pliable in terms of what it will accept. You have like a 6×6 foot room and it’s decorated a certain way, but then some sounds you can add a different color or maybe curve the corners of the room a little bit, or lower the floor, or whatever. And then some sounds bring the walls in and make everything the same color. You’re dealing with this malleable construct that has clues in it. You decide to either complement them or completely defy them.

JB: Other than what you’ve told me, I really know nothing about how this stuff is created. For instance, when I’m composing in the jazz idiom, I have all of this tradition that I can fall back on, but I am also relying on my own instinct to create the arc of the piece. Obviously there’s tradition in what you’re doing as well, but how do you accomplish this?

IM: That’s the difference between the Nagual stuff and the solo stuff. The Nagual stuff is all about shape. We are dealing with an improvisational platform. It is stretched out over a very long time, say, a 40 minute set. The set of rules that dictate it aren’t a leadsheet. It’s more like free improv except just not in the jazz idiom. You have to know the other people and sort of rely on them, and also have a certain amount of humility involved with something that open. You can be egotistical at points but when it’s a proper time to finish it, you need to have the respect for the other musicians to end. When someone starts coming out in the mix and really contributing something, you need to know when to back off. You can’t be full-out the whole time. It becomes monotonous.

JB: It’s like you have to separate your ego from the artist process anyway. It’s not like you’re saying, “Well this is important because I’m important, but because whatever I am doing is serving the music at this point in time.”

IM: Yeah, it’s a weird sort of dissociative process sometimes, because there are so many levels of removing yourself but you still have to be present. Specifically because the Nagual stuff moves slow enough, you have to be present but the decisions are more gradual. It’s not like free improv where it’s like so fast that you don’t have time to think. If you start thinking then, that’s when it starts falling apart, but with this you do have a little bit of time to think. You can make these gradual movements and be halfway through one and see that nothing’s happening, so you have to make the decision to back off or sidetrack it.

JB: Are there certain venues in town here that are dedicated to the performance of this type of music?

IM: The best one is Union Arts, which Luke Stewart helps book. It’s amazing, and the people who populate it are amazing. Aaron Martin, this saxophone player hangs out there all the time and practices. Luke does rehearsals with Trio OOO, and also Laughing Man, which is Luke’s rock project. I think Organix Trio has practiced there. It’s Warren Crudup on drums and Jamal Moore on winds. Both groups play creative and open music but also delve into different compositional structures.

DSC_7385JB: Is there anything else you’d like to expand upon?

IM: I think the thing about living in Alexandria [VA] that was super important is that I had drum educators like Myles Overton and Harold Summey. Also when I was growing up the internet wasn’t as heavy with records- it was much more accessible just to go to a record store. The culture has really changed regarding going to shows and records stores. It doesn’t seem like kids go out to shows as much as they used to. I could be wrong. I don’t go out as much as I used to. When I was a kid, [going to shows] was what you did if you were into music. You weren’t inundated withall of these Facebook invites- I get hundreds now. When you were a kid,
you’d go to a show and someone you knew there would be like, “Oh there’s this show next week,” and you’d have to write it down or they’d give you a flyer. There was more of an impetus to go if you didn’t know what it was, but with Facebook you know! You’re like, oh, it’s here, it’s these bands, here’s clips of these bands. As a kid, I remember seeing all of these punk and hardcore matinees where I didn’t know who half of the bands were. Some of them turned out to be a big deal now.

JB: I also wonder if kids are just sitting at home watching things on YouTube instead of getting out of the house and hearing music.

IM: I think we’re dealing with a culture that’s becoming less and less accepting of things that people don’t immediately want or gel with. Essentially, people are reducing their chances of being confronted by things that are new to them. It’s so ingrained in this society that folks do it unintentionally. So much is readily available to you- I’m guilty of it. I’m a little better about music though. You’re dealing with an art form; it’s ridiculous. As a consumer in a capitalist society it makes a lot of sense, but as someone who’s interested in art and how art functions, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s a much more consumerist society than even ten years ago, but for some reason [artists] don’t get paid as much.

JB: I think there’s a general lack of respect for the arts as a career path. A lot of people think, oh you’re just having fun doing it, that’s great! But they don’t think of it as a career- it’s more like a hobby.

IM: I was talking to a piano player I know who got married recently, and one of the first dinners he had a few years ago with his in-laws, they were like, “What do you do?” And he makes a solid chunk of change where he’s living teaching lessons. He said, “I’m a musician, I play piano and I’m an instructor.” And they were like, “No, what do you do for money?”

JB: My parents were always very supportive of my career path, but other people I would meet along the way would ask what I did for a living, and it was kind of the same thing as your friend’s story.

IM: If people knew the work involved… they have no idea. It’s like for every new gig that you have, there are hours of rehearsal and practicing. When you get out in the real world and start doing this, you’re probably doing 30 to 40 hours working on music. I only practice a few hours a week, because I’ll also be learning new music, or recording, or constantly emailing people.

JB: So what do you do when you have free time?

IM: As far as side stuff, I’m doing the score for a movie called B-MORE by Diamond Dixon. It’s about musicians, producers, and artists in Baltimore.

I just started working on Janel Leppin’s solo music which has been a blast. Some new projects with her partner, Anthony Pirog are also in the works. Anthony and I have played trio with Luke Stewart in the past and we want to expand on that. I’ve been doing a running drum duo with Nate Schieble. There’s a lot of different things on my plate but it’s all with musicians I respect immensely so I don’t mind being busy.

In my downtime, listening to records. Otherwise, it’s just watching TV or sleeping. I don’t really have time for much else. I used to do a lot of photo stuff when I was younger, but the more hobbies I acquire, I end up either falling off with one or trying to get really serious with all of them and it turning into a mess.

JB: Yeah I can get that! It’s been really great chatting with you. I personally can’t wait to check out all of the artists you mentioned. I kept going, “Who?” I think the only names I recognized were Art Blakey and John Coltrane!

Learn more about Ian and his music via the links below:


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