Bass Drum of Death
Bass Drum of Death: A Couple of Dudes?
If a band’s not sizeable enough to overwhelm a stage, the number of players isn’t a selling point – unless it’s a duo. There’s an involuntary shtick in performing as a pair, despite decades of famous twosomes in all genres. “It’s just two guys…” is how the go-to description typically starts. In the same way that a lady leading a troupe is always the conversational centerpiece, something’s still outside-the-box about a couple of musicians presented as a full band.
Oxford, Mississippi’s Bass Drum of Death, in most circumstances, gets the same treatment. In short: They’re two dudes doing the garage-rock thing. It’s a logical description, even if vast and vague. Some of the many comparisons to duos they’re scooping up, however, don’t sync with that by a long shot. For one: The Black Keys.
“I don’t really get the Black Keys thing at all,” frontman John Barrett says. “They’re really more bluesy, you know what I mean?”
There’s another connection between the two, though. Bass Drum’s first 7-inch and debut LP came courtesy of Barrett’s hometown imprint, Fat Possum, which earned its reputation championing blues in the ‘90s – and released two early Black Keys full-lengths. Still, most people will side with Barrett, and rightfully so. There are about two molecules of resemblance in sound between Bass Drum and the ever-present blues-rockers. But Barrett also rejects references more akin to his gritty garage than that.
“There’s maybe a couple of No Age songs we might sound like, or a couple of Japandroids songs we might sound like – but all the way around, I don’t think we sound anything like those bands,” Barrett adds.
And what about Nashville’s JEFF the Brotherhood? With searing, wailing riffs and garage-rock redrock, they’re easily the most accurate match among Bass Drum’s peers.
“It’s awesome being compared to them, because they’re the best two-piece going right now, I think. Then again, their songs, especially the new record, are veering in a direction that’s pretty different from how we sound,” Barrett explains.
True, We Are the Champions, JEFF’s latest, Barrett says, “sounds like the fucking blue album, Weezer or something.” Barrett notes he and drummer Colin Sneed are pals with JEFF, but he’s quick to separate himself sonically.
What makes the worst links from critics – the blatantly lazy Black Keys comparisons, in particular – so blasphemous is that not only do they lump Bass Drum into categories they’re unfit for, but such associations also ignore the complexities of the band. As a writer, I’m thankful for a 1000-plus word count: There’s plenty of room to break up the bullshit.
Barrett spearheaded Bass Drum of Death, and sort of found himself going for it after just messing around.
“I was living with this guy who had a drum set in one of the extra rooms at our house. I started writing songs and banging the bass drum at the same time I played guitar, just to keep a beat,” Barrett says. “I was like, ‘Well, I could probably pull this off live if I wanted to.’”
For a while, he performed alone or with anyone who didn’t mind jangling a tambourine or knocking a cymbal.
“It was just a way for me to play some shows and drink for free,” Barrett admits.
Fat Possum released Stain Stick Skin under the name John Barrett’s Bass Drum of Death in 2008, then Barrett produced GB City alone from home with USB microphones. Barrett says hailing from the same city made it easy to keep in touch with Fat Possum, but the label lost interest by the time the LP was ready.
“I just kept working on stuff and sent my record out to a bunch of different places,” he recalls. “I never wanted to be the kid from down the street, like, ‘Hey, put my record out!’”
New York-based label Inflated pressed the first 500 color copies of GB City on vinyl – then Fat Possum wanted back in. Naturally, Barrett soon realized he needed a permanent drummer. After a few didn’t work out, he found Colin Sneed.
“Colin’s been pretty on it in all phases. He loves getting out and touring. He’s really easy to be on the road with; he doesn’t require a lot,” Barrett says. “There hasn’t really been any point of contention between us at all.”
And while Bass Drum belongs primarily to Barrett, Sneed’s not just a hired hand.
“He doesn’t play everything note-for-note how I play it on the record, and I kind of like it that way,” Barrett says. “He throws his own thing on a lot of the songs and that tends to work out pretty well. It’s stuff I wouldn’t think about or am not able to do. It keeps it a little different for the live show as opposed to on the record – and I kind of like that.”
The slower pace of the greater part of Oxford, combined with the college town energy of Ole Miss nearby, is something Sneed knows firsthand as well as Barrett does – he’s from Oxford also. It’s fair to assume the free-for-all party vibe Bass Drum exudes – both in its reeling rock ‘n’ roll sound and lyrically, like “I talked to Elvis in my sleep/ He said I’m cracked out/ Oh yeah, I’m cracked out/ But at least I got nowhere to be” on “Velvet Itch” – was born, somewhat, in that coupling.
“There’s a big separation between the town and the college. The only effect it had on us is that we started playing in bars and stuff when we were 16, and figured out how to drink in certain bars by the time we were 17 or 18,” Barrett says. “I rolled around like I was 21 for, like, four years before I was 21.”
And local watering holes aren’t the only spots Barrett’s been pillaging for parties. He’s about to move into a mini-commune of sorts.
“It’s a five-bedroom, sort of shitty country mansion – we call it the Dude Ranch,” he says. “We’ll go to bars – the bars close really early – then we’ll go out there until 5, 6 in the morning sometimes.”
The 20-acre respite is headquarters for the Cats Purring Collective, and is home to enclave members like R. Cole and his spacey chill-rock project Dead Gaze, as well as Dent May, whose lite-FM pop earned him an LP on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks roster a few years ago. Bass Drum is included in that amalgam of Southern players, along with Barrett’s distorted, borderline goth-rock/new wave side project, Flight.
Expectedly, the Cats Purring Dude Ranch doubles as a venue – shows are practically nightly. Bass Drum’s video for “Get Found” was shot there, and again, not surprisingly, it depicts a raucous late-night party where Barrett wails and Sneed pounds through one of GB City’s best tunes.
The latter’s been the focus of the first promotional pushes since the album’s April unveiling, but it’s literally chock-full of singles. With “oohs” and “ahhs” and a hint of a Phil Spector-like melody, “Young Pros” is a safe bet for a follow-up, but the mid-tempo “Religious Girls,” executed in the same vein, is a risk-free option too.
But where Barrett’s done his best work – and where he seems most at home – are the wilder tunes that comprise the bulk of GB City. “Nerve Jamming” rips a little from the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl,” but filters it through a brand of lo-fi grit Jack White’s only heard, not made. “High School Roaches,” the aforementioned “Velvet Itch,” “Heart Attack Kid” and the title track all exude the dizzying rebellion of punk rock or the kind of garage rock that makes people push each other while the bar sells out of Pabst.
Live, it’s even more obvious that Barrett belongs in that realm rather than the Motown-inspired end of the garage rock spectrum. Onstage, his hair falls forward and never comes back, blocking his face almost completely. With his feet turned awkwardly inward, Barrett’s visibly clenching with determination while blissfully lost – subtly reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, who Barrett names first as an influence.
“I like pop songs that are loud,” he says. “Especially some of the songs on Bleach, [they’re] old-school pop songs. They play[ed] them loud and they sound[ed] nasty,” he says. “[Nirvana] is obviously a huge influence in songwriting.”
Still, Barrett does have a penchant for glossier pop. He covered The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” for a friend’s 7-inch that never materialized and it landed on the album as a bonus cut. Barrett opted to keep the male-targeted lyrics as-is, and he nails the falsetto, albeit with echo effects.
“We’re a pretty dude-friendly band, so I thought it’d be funny,” he laughs. “We’re a couple of dudes playing loud rock music, so I thought it’d be cool to bend it a little bit.”
The cover aside, even when Barrett does lean toward pop, raw aggression is more than a suggestion on any given GB City track. What’s seemingly a coo written down is, by habit, a snarl for Barrett – “oohs” aren’t peaceful accents but instead untamed, unruly releases that ooze blood like rare meat from every hook. So when somebody asks who the heck Bass Drum of Death is, starting with “a couple of dudes” is fair – just don’t stop there.