I haven’t taken notes at a gig since university. But I knew this one would be worthy of an article or blog post. Jojo Mayer’s clout in the drumming community is up among the most epic of living players, but such is life, ask many Joes from the street and they probably won’t know who you mean. This is confirmed by NERVE’s admission that they couldn’t find a promoter for the tour; and therefore were promoting it themselves. Sure enough, Jojo’s own email address was on the flyer. I see this as testament to Jojo’s stoicism within the music industry.
Another honest point he raised was that they often get a few technical hiccups on stage, a previous one being that a screw had worked loose inside Jacob Bergson’s Prophet 5 synth. I liked that this sounded bigger than it actually was, if listened to adjacent to context: The prophet had a screw loose.Whomever they approached to promote the shows initially must be gutted if the previous and consequent gigs are anything like this one was, for the house was full. Forgetting the deceptive size of Under The Bridge, and with no advance ticket, I feared for a moment that I wouldn’t get in. The queue was sprawling: a throbbing line of mainly drum and music students from nearby BIMM, as far as I could see. Those within my earshot were internationals – Scandinavians, Berliners, talking excitedly and self-assuredly about … I couldn’t really tell you what. If I was asked to summarise it in one word that both they and I would understand (and probably agree on), I’d settle on Hipsterism.
Jojo is a long-term Sonor endorser, and from my spot stage left and raised, I had a good view of the glistening but strange set-up. When picked up on its odd incarnation of no rack tom and, from what I could see, four pairs of hi hats, by a drum student, Mayer made it simple; ‘My set-up always follows the music.’ This makes complete sense, as the darker, harder-hitting styles that NERVE delivers don’t really call for the higher pitched toms. And let’s face it, one can never have enough hi hats.
When asked by one of the above what his favourite drum and bass record was, Jojo mentioned, among others, Photek’s Modus Operandi. I think he meant the album, as the title track is a fairly mellow nujazz number. This album proffers the flagship crispness one comes to expect from the British, now LA-based TV composer. And so it’s not difficult to imagine why Mayer pricked up his ears and picked up his sticks; his drumming is as crisp as it gets on an acoustic set-up, and offers a perfect comparison to Photek’s beat programming. And this is the point Jojo is raising with this tour, and has raised in interviews, TED talks and any other format from which he can. The point is this: emulating the tightness and crispness of beats programmed by professionals in digital audio workstations, with four human limbs, in real time, on the acoustic drum kit. This is what he calls Reverse Engineering, a concept he introduced when kicking off the masterclass before the gig; a clinic with not just a drummer but also a bassist, keyboardist, and an engineer.
So if Reverse Engineering is the concept, what is the sound? ‘It is jazz in the original sense, but it just doesn’t sound like it,’ answered Mayer. And it is electronic music, he continued, but not in the original sense.
Referencing influences such as Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, he said, ‘they took risks’, and ‘we’re ready to do that. Jazz [came from] black musicians […] on the docks, […] and became academic music. But the solution always came from the street.’ A video of Jojo on YouTube centers him physically on the street in different locations around New York City with a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hats and a ride cymbal, alluding to his surroundings with his playing, a different style for each quarter. Each video also has some subtle creative editing to start and finish each sequence. Passers by do just that – pass by. No-one stops and stares in awe at the extraordinary speed and dexterity with which Mayer is coordinating his fingers, wrists, arms and legs. Almost in direct parallel to this is one of Jojo’s closing comments on the night: ‘[our music] is not for everybody
… it is what it is.’
The irony is that music lovers and clubbers who appreciate slightly more than catchy processed vocals and siren-like filters, on walking into this show, would have wet themselves, unbeknownst that it was a full band playing a live mix. John Davis’ bass playing and thunderous ‘low end manipulation’ sits in alongside Jojo’s perfect pocket grooves, as Jacob Bergson asks himself ‘what can I add’, and floats in and out of the rhythm with late eighties Eno-esque synth patterns, but much darker. If you listen from Mayer’s site, it’s apparent that the European tour did take the formation of tracks previously recorded. But with Bergson bringing the signature sound to each track, the band pick their way through a new way of playing it in a live situation and this gives Mayer especially, freedom to improvise with, for instance, a dub groove in amongst what is for intents and purposes an electro/techno track. And this is where Aaron Nevezie comes into his own, with techniques that turn ‘the sound desk into a musical instrument by supplying many of the textures usually created in postproduction in real time.’ Similar methods are used in the Submotion Orchestra’s live shows, which you can read about in a blog post of mine to follow.
Interweaving comments from both the conceptual side and the musical side of this band, Jojo offered the mic to Jacob Bergson, who was asked by one of the students if scales and traditional studies were important. He answered that ‘you have to learn that at some point’, but his insinuation was that creativity and boundary-breaking improvisation was key if the player was interested in approaching the sort of sound that NERVE dispenses. This, I suspect, was music to most students’ ears.
Mayer is clearly a man of his word and it’s obvious that he wrote the copy for his website himself. He brings it all up at key points in the NERVE conversation. Expanding on the risk notion, above, he mentioned the idea of ‘play’ in relation to the music, the psychology, and the culture of what he is trying to achieve: ‘Play is reward. You can get hurt playing. Playing makes you feel better.’ He elaborated by mentioning his respect for the Parkour movement: ‘that’s jazz to me,’ he said. Many who know me will remember I had a brief fling with my own version of Parkour, and I do still enjoy lobbing myself around in urban spaces if I ever get the chance. These things, beats, dancing, free-running – the tricky manipulations of the physical movement of form and sound – these are the things closest to my heart. Forever may I be gifted the opportunity of performing them, if only for my own entertainment. If you’re reading Jojo, I was truly moved on hearing you speak.
Linking further from the ‘play’ concept, Mayer admitted that improvisation was his most entire aim when he hit the stage for these events. ‘I go on stage with an empty head, so I can fill it up while I play … it forces me to be myself; I cannot imitate anyone doing that.’
If you go to see one semi-improvised live truly electronic performance next year, there really is only one to see and that is NERVE.
 See Mayer’s website - http://www.Jojomayer.com/about/