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The Secret Lives of Drummers

“We drummers are oftentimes responsible for keeping things organized,” says Mark Guilliana of Beat Music, who’s also played with David Bowie, among many others. The idea that the drummer is the hidden force driving the band is one of themes of Deirdre O’Callaghan‘s new book The Drum Thing, published recently by Prestel, which features Guilliana and more than 100 other drummers who play in every imaginable style. The book includes O’Callaghan’s portraits and interviews with musicians she calls the “most unique drummers in the world today,” men and women working in jazz, rock, hip hop and everything else, from Questlove and Ringo Starr to Dave Grohl and Ginger Baker. Shot in their private rehearsal spaces, which range from slick studios and tropical gardens to messy bedrooms and crowded basements, her subjects close their eyes and toss their hair as they play, or sit more reflectively at their sets or on couches. In candid interviews, they give advice (Jack White: “When you go onstage you have to act like you own the joint,”) debate the merits of drum machines (Pauli the PMS, of Gorillas: “The drum machine’s got a spirit in the same way that a human drummer has…it’s an instrument, and you’re programming [it] in the same way you program your body to play the drum kit,”), or recall their first experiences with music (Questlove: “I got introduced to jazz as a punishment.”)

O’Callaghan has photographed in the music industry for more than 15 years, and she used her contacts with labels and musicians when starting out on the book. In its introduction, she explains her attraction to the often least-celebrated member of a band. She writes, “I love the rhythm section. Drummers are underrated and under-appreciated. They are the leaders even though they sit at the back. They are a band’s foundation. They express the intuitive rhythm we all have inside us, connecting us to our primal instincts.” And unlike a keyboard player or saxophonist, who might move only their fingers when playing, drummers’ large motor skills are always visible. She writes, “As a photographer, I love watching a drummer perform—the sheer physicality of playing this kind of instrument. To me drumming is almost like a dance, and the idea of capturing this energy and rhythm really appealed to me. This was something I wanted to explore by creating a book which tells drummers’ stories, not only in pictures, but also in their words, to find out more about what drives them, both as musicians and as people.”

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