Sunday 6 November 2016

I had the privilege of meeting drummer Matthew Jacobson of the trio F-JOB, who were performing as part of the 2016 Galway Jazz Festival. It was a fantastic gig, performed by a trio of very talented and creative musicians. 

Tom: How are you enjoying the Galway Jazz Festival?
It’s brilliant. I’ve been down a bunch of times, I’m not sure how many. I think they said this is the 12th year, but I don’t know. Probably the last 10 years I’ve been down through friends. I’m quite close to Matthew Berrill and also Aengus Hackett who have been involved for the last few years, so I always come down for different projects and to me it’s always been a fantastic festival. It’s really about the community and you get that feel. Even Galway as a town has been like that, so it’s a good place to run a festival where there are a lot of Irish jazz musicians.

Tom: Matthew you have a very impressive Curriculum Vitae , when did the drumming bug start?
It really came from my older brother Daniel, who was a guitarist, he’s 7 years older than me and when I was 12 I started playing piano. My older sister played piano and my brother played a bit, we were all getting lessons so I did that for a while. I was quite into music anyway, like my brother was quite a hero, like whatever he was into, I was into, so when I was about 12 he started playing jazz, so he basically kind of used me as his little guinea pig and would play me everything he was listening to. I was just absorbing it all and he’d take giant steps and I’d be like cool, I like this. I don’t know how much I was taking it in or I don’t know how aware of everything I was, but to me I was like, okay cool and so I kept listening to stuff. He always got me to clap funny rhythms and they were my first musical experiences really, so I think that it really stood to me. I didn’t actually start playing the drums until I was about 14 or 15 when I was doing Junior Certificate music and I had to pick an instrument. The teacher was trying to get me to play piano because I was playing badly tuned standards at that point. I just remember always playing Mr. PC (John Coltrane tune) in C minor because that was the only key I could play in. My music teacher thought it was amazing, that I was improvising when everyone else was playing Bach, so she was trying to get me to play piano but I asked my brother what should I do and he said you should play the drums, so I asked my mum and dad and they said well you can get lessons for a while in Newpark Music Centre. I was actually in Newpark School so you could run across, so we did that. My first teachers were teaching privately there, so I went to them for lessons for about 6 months or maybe even a year before I had a drum-kit. I  proved to everyone that I was serious, because the teachers said I was developing, so my parents said “okay we’ll get you a drum-kit” and I think the whole thing was probably a ploy from my brother to have a drum-kit in the house, so he could rehearse with his band because he was playing a guitar, so it worked out and then we got the drum-kit and then it was really helpful having my brother around and we would rehearse and he was in a band with Sean Carpio, which was a really big influence for me. I then took out transition year of secondary school and went to Newpark Music Centre because then you could do these 2 years there. You could do a 1 year music course for the PMTC which stands for Professional Music Training Course and then you could do a diploma. So I took transition year out for this 1 year course, then went back and did my Leaving Certificate. They had it for two years and made it into a 4 year degree so essentially I had done the first year of my degree in TY which was pretty handy. Then I went straight into 2nd year and in 5th and 6th year I continued playing with lots of people and Newpark was really great and had me beginning to help out with ensembles. I was still serious, even though I was doing my Leaving Certificate so I spent a lot of that time, still playing and then starting to play gigs with people like Matt Berrill, Derek Whyte and Greg Philbin. I was playing with them quite a lot, with Nick Roth and my brother, just because I think of the connection through my brother which had brought a lot of opportunities when I was quite young. I think maybe even before I was technically at the level to play at those gigs, so there was a funny situation where I was always experiencing hearing all this music and maybe I wasn’t quite there yet, but I think that it actually really stood to me. I was getting that experience because there’s nothing really to substitute for that and it’s not something you can really practice on your own just being in all those playing situations, it was great and so then I went back to Newpark and finished my degree.

Tom: What did you do after your degree?
 I went to Switzerland for 2 years. I just felt by the end of Newpark it was maybe time to just knuckle down. Thanks to Newpark I got these new opportunities where I was playing a lot and it kind of meant that I was playing more than practicing, but then at that point, I knew what I had to do. It was really important that I wasn’t just practicing everyday without really knowing why, like having those experiences and then realising what I needed to practice and what the goal was and not just practicing the different rudiments so I can play at this tempo because I know that this will help my playing in these kind of situations and to me that was really helpful. So then I spent 2 years in a really great school in Lucerne in Switzerland, with some amazing teachers and there was a guy called Norbert Pfammatter and he’s an amazing drummer and an amazing teacher, like every single lesson I just came out really wanting to play the drums and that was unusual for me to get that much out of a lesson. It was great and he was just like a really warm guy, really supportive and encouraging and they noticed when I arrived for the audition, it sounds like you have lots going on and you have lots of ideas and there may just be something missing. I remember 2 years later, the teacher at Newpark, when he saw me he said I had put on some weight drum wise, which was what it was all about. In general there wasn’t much happening so it was perfect just getting my head down and focusing on getting my music perfect, also meeting different musicians and I played in a few different bands. I played with a band called AERIE, we met in Switzerland, that’s another thing about going away, it’s also about the people you meet, like you can be a great musician but if you stay in Ireland as a jazz musician your just not going to get those opportunities as the pool of musicians here is just too small.

Tom:  For other Irish Drummers you feel it might be something they have to consider as regards working abroad?
 I definitely encourage all students to think about it at least. They’re broadening the pool that way. I think you do need to broaden your horizons. I think it’s really sad how little contact we have with the UK and London, especially London, being such a huge jazz scene and so many amazing musicians, none of which anybody in Ireland knows about. I’m always absolutely shocked how few people have really checked out other musicians, I guess there is history and politics, anyway most of my generation don’t seem very bothered by it. It takes about as long to get to London as it does to get to Cork on a plane and it costs the same price as the train fare. I’ve been trying over the last couple of years to spend more time there and to really treat Dublin as a base for a jazz musician or an Irish drummer and you can be based here and you can have all the comfort of being at home, surrounded by all your friends and family and people you have known and grown up with but at the same time it’s really easy to travel from Dublin. You’re always well received by people all around the world and to do that at the same time and go forth and it’s been going okay so far. It involves quite a lot of time management  and obviously you have to make a living. I teach at the Newpark Music Centre as well, so I have to make sure I’m there as much as I can be for the students. I also know it’s important to be leaving, when you’re a musician to be meeting and playing with other musicians, playing in other situations and I definitely think more people should be doing that.

Tom:  Who are the drummers that influence you the most?
From the beginning it was Tony Williams. I guess because they were the records my brother played me. Jim Black also Paul Motian would have been a big influence. I guess for me they were the ones I would look up to the most. Jim Black and Tom Rainey, I would go and see and I’ve gotten lessons off them. I found it hard to get lessons from them, partly because I wasn’t a good student and also because they were my inspiration growing up. If you get a lesson off somebody who has never met you before, you have to be prepared and ask them very specific things and definitely the 1st lesson I had with either of them I kind of just turned up and it was like, how do I play well. I probably didn’t say that exactly but that was kind of the vibe of being in the surreal moment, of being in Jim Black’s loft, arriving for a lesson and then just end up sitting behind the drums. So I was sitting behind his drums, he picked up a guitar and started playing the kinds of tunes that are on his albums. I basically ended up doing a really bad Jim Black impression. It came to a point where I knew what I had to do myself, I was developing my own voice and didn’t want to just sound like them even though I loved how they played. I just had to work on my own thing, which would involve a lot of time and practice. I haven’t gotten any drum lessons in the last 5 or 6 years but the lessons were beneficial. I realised I would get more from listening to people and even hanging out with them. In New York there is a real sense of community and people have this idea that New York is very cold and it’s hard to break into the scene but I didn’t find that at all. I spent months there and it just felt really warm and people accepted you. I really felt part of a community which was amazing and especially that kind of music, like the downtown New York Brooklyn scene of people being improvisers. You’re talking about gigs, where there is only like 15 or 20 people, amazing musicians, who come to Europe and then do quite big tours and big venues and they’re playing in bars of like 10 people for 5 dollars so when you go to gigs there people recognise you and there like oh there is an Irish drummer in town. It’s more like a session but not like a jam session. It’s like you go to someone’s house and play for 2 hours either free or bringing your own tunes or playing standards. That doesn’t really happen here in Ireland which I think is a pity because I think that is the point for a musician or an artist, to enjoy bringing your own tunes or playing standards and that doesn’t really happen here in Ireland, which I think is a pity. I think that is the point for a musician or an artist and I feel that things here are more project based, rather than saying is there a gig and being like no, we’re just playing because that’s what we do, hang out and play. So it was really helpful for me being in that situation in New York. I basically just spent 9 months organising sessions with different people, every day and I definitely learned a lot from being there. The things about the guys I mentioned, specifically for me was how they were playing quite complex music which I always had an interest in. They always made it sound like a musical, not like they were just-rhyming off stuff. I’ve never wanted to play music that was complicated, just for the sake of it. Its music that’s personal to you and you can present it in a way that’s unique and special to you. Sometimes music can get to mathematical and scientific and it doesn’t sound from the heart, or with any emotion.

Tom: Matthew in your opinion, what are the albums and music people should listen to?
I think Jim Black’s albums and Alasnoaxis. I was also listening to Tom Rainey and a sax player called Tim Berne, he has a bunch of albums. I guess one particular album that stood out for me was called Science Fiction, again it was quite complex musically and it had a lot of free improvisation on it. The kind of idea where they would have quite long complicated melodies and things going on and then there would be a free section in the middle, that to me I always had an emotional connection with. I always really liked playing and I liked listening to and it wasn’t really happening here. There aren’t that many people in Ireland that play in that style, which was always one of the things that I was interested in and liked.

Tom: Matthew you also studied in South India
Yeah, even at a young age, my brother and I would also listen to Indian music and also there is also a strong element of Indian music in Newpark Music Centre. Conor Guilfoyle had studied it and it was always part of the curriculum there. I always was interested in it so I spent a summer there, at a school in Chennai and it was pretty intense. Nothing can really prepare you for going over there because it’s not really like anywhere else, we basically spent every day singing and clapping rhythms. A friend of mine, Simon Roth is also here and he was playing with Lauren Kinsella last night and he’s from London. He had a similar interest in the Indian theme and we were together there for 6 weeks. We would have an intense 2 hour lesson and we decided not to learn any instrumental stuff because in India people generally spend years studying instruments before really getting anywhere. You would actually just follow your master around and make them cups of tea and stuff like that before you would even get to touch the instrument and we were only going for 6 weeks so we basically wanted to learn the language, the vocabulary and to integrate that into our music.

Tom: That must have been fantastic
It was incredible and I learned a lot. I spent the 6 weeks learning and finding out new stuff but it would take much longer than 6 weeks to be able to integrate what I learned into my own music, to really be fluent in that language. To improvise it into my own music, it would take a lot longer and that was about 5 years ago, but it’s always been music which has been important to me and I use more as a compositional player than the actual music.

Tom: What’s your kit set up like?
Well I’ll start with the cymbals. When I was in New York for the year I lived with a drummer called Jesse Simpson, a fantastic drummer and also a brilliant piano player. He decided during college that he was bored of the drums so he practiced piano. He got really, really good and he could play piano gigs.  When I arrived in New York, he had a bunch of gigs and he said to me oh you can play drums, so instantly I got some gigs out of it which was amazing. He was getting into being a cymbal- smith and very few people in the world are doing that to a high level. He had a workshop and he would keep building up all the equipment that you would need. He was also in touch with some of the other cymbal-smiths and I asked him to do some modification of the cymbals I had at the time.

Tom: What kind of cymbal sound do you like?
My preference was always dry and light cymbals. After I got home from New York I applied to Music Network for a capital scheme grant. They give you 50% of the cost, so I put in the application and I got it.  Jesse custom built two cymbals for me. He made a 22 inch ride. I wanted it to be quite dry and light. I couldn’t use it for Jazz music because there just wasn’t enough body and tone so I was looking for something in between and he did a fairly good job. We would go back and forth, he’d send me different audio clips and I’d say a bit drier or a bit darker. With the 18 inch ride I wanted to have the shortest decay possible, that you could really dig into and then it would disappear. I have them for almost 2 years now and I’m really happy with them.

Tom:  What drum kit do you currently use?
The drum-kit from New York, came from a shop called the Modern Drum shop. The guy who owned it was a great drummer even though I never heard him play. He played with Sheff Baker and at some point he got into custom building kits. He was famous for this stack kit which has got hinges on the bass drum and floor- tom. It sounded really well. It’s an 18 by 16 inch bass drum, 14 inch floor and a 10 inch tom. At that moment I was thinking, I wasn’t really happy with the tom. I prefer a 12 inch, just for the kind of gigs I’m playing. They weren’t really cutting it, so I’m going to try and find a 12 inch somewhere, but otherwise I’m really happy with the kit. I find that the kit sounds really nice with aquarian modern vintage skins but I have a really hard time finding them, like the shops don’t sell them and some of the biggest online music shops don’t have them. I contacted aquarian directly and I’m still trying to get them but that’s my preference which really works with the kit. Also the kit is in a slightly older style, it’s about 12 or 13 years old, but that’s what gives it it’s jazzy bobby sound. I’m using the really cheap Yamaha fold up pedal because it’s really light weight and it doesn’t have a base and I find it great and easy to use. I can’t really use the big ones. Jesse (Simpson) also collects a lot of vintage gear. He has this fascination for buying hardware and I got him to give me a lot of hardware and I keep all my kit in a bag because it’s so flexible and that bag has Rogers cymbals. I can fit all the kit and the hardware in the boot. My stick preference is ProMark.

Tom : Matthew, you were the Dun Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council inaugural Musician in Residence. How did that come about?
I was from around that area originally, so I’m on the arts mailing list and a few people had also forwarded it to me. My parents were supportive, my dad especially, he looks out for opportunities and he sends me emails. It’s always nice to have the support. It was just an open call out. It was unusually open for an obligation like that, especially with Irish Councils’ they would usually be looking for more specific in terms of what they want you to do. This was basically an open call where you could work on whatever you wanted to do, for 3-4 months, so I suggested this idea of 4 duos with artists. I had already been working with some artists and others I wanted to work with. I said I’d put on concerts at the end with each duo and they went for it. It was one of the most productive periods in the last 10 years and to have the space like there, it was a beautiful theatre. I left a drum-kit and some gear there, it was free. I could go in and use it and put together 4 sets of musicians, 3 of whom were from Cork, such as Linda Buckley, who is a composer and has a Sean nos singing background, she’s someone I always wanted to work with. It was a really great period for me and to just have that opportunity. I always appreciated that time and space I was given. When you don’t get those kinds of opportunities it’s easy to float. I was talking to the bass player about this yesterday like when you get busy it’s easy to go from one project to the next and at no point do you really stop and evaluate what your doing or have the time and space to be creative and work on your own thing. You start giving a lot of yourself to everybody else and I think it’s really important to make sure you keep some for yourself for your own creative energy. It’s easy to get in a stroll and move from 1 project to the next and all of a sudden you’re in the last year and you’re like I don’t know what I’ve been doing and when someone asks you what you did last week and you don’t really know because it’s like a blur in your head. It’s kind of a pity because I think then you become less valuable to other people as well. Things can start happening a bit on auto pilot for me, I never wanted to be like that, I wanted to be present in everything I do.

Tom: What’s next on the horizon?
Well I just started a PHD, in the University of Ulster. The general area is downtown New York music, which is actually their research topic and it’s kind of what I’ve built most of my musical career on, so that would be great for me. The subtitle is kind of exploring improvising musical stages, on small scale compositions, so again kind of what I was talking about earlier with Jim. The idea of writing music and compositions, for the idea of improvising, but not in a way to say jazz standards where it’s like the form is all quite prescribed and where it’s when we play a melody and then we improvise over them and also not in an improve way where it’s completely free but somewhere in between which I find is not really discussed about a lot and hasn’t really been written about. I felt like it would be a good strong topic for a PHD. So the PHD is performance based, so I have to create a major portfolio of work in compositions of work and recordings. It doesn’t have to be a professional quality, like a video clip of a gig or live or private recordings and then I have to write a 40,000 piece word so we’ll see how that goes. I only officially started a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t had a huge amount of time yet but I’ll try and just go up to the campus. I’ll try and get up there every couple of weeks and have a day or 2 to just be in the library and be in that situation. When I’m at home in Dublin I find it quite hard to just sit down and work in it.  So that’s going to take up a lot of time in the next few years and most of music will be aimed for the PHD which is kind of lucky for me because the PHD is kind of what I work towards and do anyway. I just have to be focused on it and again make sure I don’t just float. The PHD is a way for me to be more focused, just even being slightly more qualitative about things. Sometimes people have a tendency to do things and forget about them and then go onto the next. So that’s the plan for the next few years really and I’m still involved with lots of different projects and they will all feed into it as well.

Tom: What other projects are you involved in?
 I actually came out of the Dun Laoghaire residence with Insufficient Funs (a drum and bass saxophone duo) and I’m going to try and book some tours with that. Hopefully, Laura Hyland and I are going to be releasing an album in the next few months. Also Umbra, which is Chris Guilfoyle, it’s kind of more of a rocky vibe.  I’m going to Australia at the end of the month with Ronan and Chris Guilfoyle, for a jazz festival and some other concerts. It’s going to be busy.

Tom: How do you approach a piece of music for the first time, particularly around the creative process?
 I don’t think there’s any fixed rule or specific approach or techniques. I mean trying to interact with the music is my approach. On a musical level I try not to approach things by just the drums. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I don’t actually even think that it’s a good thing always. Listening back to my own playing sometimes I might think I could’ve been more drummy there. I have a tendency to play through more and provide more colours and textures. I’m interested in all the parts and think what’s the bass doing, what’s the piano doing and what’s the sax doing and then also as a drummer who composes music I find often when I’m playing my own music it’s really clear and I play everything over in my head. I haven’t really written drum parts for my music only really everyone else’s parts and then I play off them which I think can be really good at times. I play on a bunch of projects and the reason they ask me to be there is because I can provide this more textural approach. It’s more about colours and dynamics. Dynamics are something particularly important and for any drummer I feel like it’s completely overlooked. Like you don’t really practice the dynamics and to me it’s often the difference between playing the drums and playing the music and the drummer can fall into the habit of playing just 1 volume or playing to loud or to quiet but the bigger range you have the better it will sound. Tempos are also really important and creatively it’s really important to feed the dynamics and tempo into your music.

Tom: In a band situation do you feel other musicians try and dictate how you play?
The funniest thing happened yesterday actually. We were rehearsing and the leader had brought some new material. He usually doesn’t say anything to me specifically because for the part when I play the drums I’m given a bass part. Anyway I was playing along and he told me he wanted it rocky and there was another section where he was looking for older jazz style. His communication wasn’t very clear and I wasn’t really doing what he wanted because he told me he wanted me to play in a jungle style and I think by that he meant old jazz style. There was just no solution and I was saying for now, let me do what was natural to me, or send me a recording or write down how you want me to play. One of the advantages of being a musician who can read music is when you’re in these kind of situations, if they want you to do something specific and they can’t articulate, then they can write it down. It’s easier to say okay look here is what has been written, I’ll interpret that and it will be closer to the style you want so yeah at that point reading is really helpful. Often it’s quite difficult for musicians to articulate what they want the drummer to do but because a lot of people are playing with the drums all the time it’s easier for them to get across exactly what they want done. Even just, I want this to be more dry or have more cymbals, like it’s amazing how many professional musicians wouldn’t be able to give you that. I think I’m always open and diplomatic to someone, to give them what they want, especially if it’s their music.

Tom: Today, during your performance as part of the Galway Jazz Festival, the trio looked like you were all really relaxed and enjoying the occasion. As a drummer do you ever experience stage fright?
I wouldn’t have gotten or get stage fright but I would be a bit more aware and a bit more conscious if there are particular musicians that I want to impress, but it’s not a good feeling because I don’t want to be worrying about what other people are thinking. I just want to be present in the moment, so I try and avoid that. Playing with Cormac (O’Brien) and Greg (Felton), there great musicians and I’ve played with them for so long and we’re friends so we all trust each other and it’d just be comfortable and easy. I’m really enjoying playing in this project and I don’t really play in projects I don’t like. I get a lot of people coming up to me and saying “ wow you look like you really enjoyed yourself” and it’s terrible that people think that I wouldn’t be enjoying myself or they’re surprised that I actually enjoyed myself. Why aren’t more musicians just enjoying themselves?

Tom: Matthew, in your opinion, what makes Irish drummers unique as opposed to drummers from other countries?

I’m not sure. When I think about all the Irish drummers I know, I think we are all quite different. I grew up listening to Sean Carpio, Conor Guilfoyle and Shane O’Donovan and I think we all sound very different, especially with jazz drummers as we never really had a big scene. So it wasn’t like Irish drummers had a lot of people to look up to, or to listen to, so I think we all ended up sounding different because we were like influenced by different things. Shane O’Donovan is very interested in electronic music so I think we were all influenced by different things. In other countries, there is maybe more connecting drummers, so they probably all sound somewhat similar. I think we are missing the connection but I do think that the drumming scene is changing and there’s a gap in jazz music because I don’t think it’s very common here in Ireland.