I've been playing drums for about 12 years now. And I'm constantly beating myself up over playing this or playing that perfectly. Complex polyrhythms to blazing triplets on the bass drum -- I'm always trying to get it right. Musicians understand what I'm talking about, so let me try to break it down for all the other creative minds: Picasso's painting of Sara Murphy captures emotion in a still frame like none other. You've been cooped up in a room for days, and you're at the easel again. But s***, still, no Sara Murphy on your canvas. After frequent frustrating hours, I pinned a piece of paper to the wall right near my drum kit. Short and sweet, it says: "Relax." There's a saying that goes "Less is more." One of my professors used to constantly repeat: "Keep it stupid simple." I'm the first to admit those bass drum triplets get the best of me sometimes. When they do, I strip things down. I unplug. And what I've noticed is that when I strip down my playing, when I keep it "stupid simple," there's other nuances that out-ring those bombastic polyrhythms.
This stripped down style of playing brings on a new listening experience. "Unplugging" softens the concept and adds a whole new texture. It leaves room for things to happen that might not usually occur over all the other noise clutter. Foo Fighters "My Hero." It starts out with heavy, punchy drums. The second Dave Grohl hums those strong first lines, your neck already hurts from head-banging. Now, take the acoustic version. Here we have the story of someone who is courageous, someone bold; it's no longer just punchy drums, but it becomes prose.
People listen to music for different reasons. Some people listen to certain bands or artists for their music, some look to them for the narrative aspect. Foo Fighters' Skin and Bones
is a perfect example of what an "acoustic" album -- which I'm now deeming synonymous with "unplugged" -- can do for all types of listeners. Ears prone to the music, get a new arrangement of some classic tracks, and the googley-eye'd fans usually singing along in the front get the lyrics sung in a whole different demeanor. The original idea for this piece started out as a focus on how acoustic albums change the dynamic of an artist's catalog (which it still sort of is), but after going through some of my favorite jams (and stumbling on some new ones,) I don't think it can be focused on just acoustic albums because I don't think there are just acoustic albums anymore. It's not just "rock band plays song the same way on acoustic guitar," but it's now become "unplugged;" a platform for where not just bands, but artists alike can show some skin and metaphorically strip, showing you what's beneath their clothes.
One of my favorite bands, Minus the Bear, has two acoustic discs, very creatively entitled Acoustics
and Acoustics II
. On Acoustics II
"Hooray" (off Menos El Oso) is arranged completely different. The tempo is slower, the dynamics are softer, and singer Jake Snyder isn't as raspy. The band is free to roam here. And they do
"Unplugged" sessions, and acoustic albums at that, are also a way for an artist to revisit old material. The same way you aren't that stud bracelet-wearing teen from high school, artists grow with each album both musically and literally. Yes, musicians get old too! They mature the same way us common folk do. For a Spotify session, one of my favorite artists, John Legend, performs his first single "Ordinary People." He prefaces it with how the song came about. Legend says, "I also wrote this song with Will.i.am from the Black Eye Peas. When we originally wrote this song, we were writing a song for Black Eye Peas." There's an openness here that can't be captured by just listening to the song. Legend is reflecting on the primitivity of the composition -- reflection is the key to growth. He continues, "When I wrote the chorus, I said 'This would be better as a John Legend ballad, than a Black Eye Peas song.'" Legend then belts out words of love; he presses on the grand piano with a mature charisma that sounds absent from the original version on his debut album by comparison.
Even Aldous Snow (Rusell Brand's character in Get Him to the Greek
) does an unplugged session, where he proudly discusses his sobriety and thanks his friend Aaron (a.k.a Jonah Hill, who I STILL can't believe plays a Mars Volta track in the beginning of the film) for being a good friend. What acoustic and unplugged comes down to, is virtually bringing the artists and listeners one-on-one. It's the artist keeping it "stupid simple." This gives them a chance to refresh their piece. Maybe change keys, or even add a solo before the bridge. And I think this intimacy and reinvention is exactly
what music needs. It's also just cool as shit for music nerds like me, to see some of my favorite artists articulate different themes in songs that I've already embedded in my memory -- a chance for the artist (and me) to make those songs new again. So when I'm really struggling around my drum kit, I look at my sign: "Relax." Then, I unplug.