Drummer2Drummer with Daniel Lyons – Vol 3: TORCH (Gregory Sgrulloni)
My name is Daniel Lyons, and I am currently the drummer for Horizon Wireless and SOLARiS, two steadily touring acts in the Northeast live music circuit. In my Drummer2Drummer series, I will be interviewing fellow drummers from the live music scene, seeking out answers that will elaborate on the special differences and preferences that make every drummer their own unique performer.
In this third volume of the Drummer2Drummer series, I will be interviewing Gregory Sgrulloni, aka TORCH, one of the most profoundly talented and technically proficient drummers that I’ve ever worked with or had the pleasure of knowing. TORCH is a drummer and producer best known for his work behind the kit in Conspirator (featuring members of The Disco Biscuits and RAQ) and Sistine Criminals. Having shared the stage with a growing list of artists such as Big Gigantic, Adam Deitch, Method Man and more, TORCH is fast becoming an in-demand and sought after drummer and producer. In summer of 2014, his Live EDM act Sistine Criminals was a featured musical guest along with Mobb Deep on the Hannibal Buress show at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. Now join me as I spark up an illuminating conversation with TORCH.
Daniel Lyons: Hey Torch! Let’s start with a little icebreaker. Do you remember the first song you ever played live?
Gregory Sgrulloni: “The Twist” by Chubby Checker on a snare drum in grade school! I felt so cool after that.
DL: I’m going to go out on a complete limb and guess that you’ve had some kind of either marching or concert band training. What was that experience like and how has it built on the drum vocabulary you use today?
GS: You’re absolutely 100% on the money. Both actually. I learned most of my technique through playing in drumline. We were actually very fortunate to have a guy come in from UMass every summer and whip us into shape during marching season. His name was Matt Pagnotta. He was an absolute beast! I learned a lot from that dude and to this day I still religiously practice all those exercises to keep things fine tuned.
DL: When you joined Conspirator, you were seemingly catapulted into playing tons of big shows, really damn fast. Let’s first talk about how that felt on a personal level. What was that lightyear jump like for you? Validating? Emotional? Overwhelming?
GS: All of the above man! I literally went from working in a coffee shop to playing some of the biggest festivals in the country, and then straight into a pretty thick fall tour schedule. It was surreal and very overwhelming at first. I’ll never forget my first show with Conspirator for as long as I live. As my luck would have it — being the new guy — everything that could’ve gone wrong for me…DID! Oh man. My headphones were cutting in and out the entire show, my battery pack was shorting out continually and our sound guy Jesse was forced to crouch down behind Marc [Brownstein’s] bass rig for the majority of the show so he could assist me with my technical difficulties.
We were also sandwiched between The Nth Power and Break Science, bands with two of the nastiest drummers in the scene, Nicki Glaspie and Adam Deitch. Having to follow one of my favorite drummers, KJ Sawka, as the new drummer for Conspirator wasn’t easy either! Man it was crazy! The universe was initiating me I guess. The following morning we jumped into our van to go to our next destination…and as soon as I took my seat, I ended up having what I didn’t realize at the time was a panic attack. I had never experienced that before in my life. I think having to make the complete 180 degree shift from my old life to the new one in such a short amount of time must’ve been mental overload for me at the time. Ha! Of course, I’m happy I can laugh about it now!
DL: From a drumming perspective, how did that shift into Conspirator alter your playing? Was your stamina being challenged by so many successive gigs and all that traveling?
GS: I was without a doubt taken out of my comfort zone in a number of ways. I’ve never considered myself a light touched drummer, but I was never much of a heavy hitter either. Somewhere in the middle I guess? In other words, my playing might be considered too loud and aggressive for some jazz situations, but on the other hand I may be considered a lighter player when it comes to rock or metal drumming. And although Conspirator is considered an electronic project, my personal approach to playing electronic music really had to shift in order to meet the needs of the show. In the end it really demanded more of a heavy hitting rock approach for most of the songs. I really had to condition myself physically so I could survive the two hour long sets. When I knew I got the gig, I took my ass running everyday for at least 2 months to be in better shape. Those dudes really kicked my ass!
DL: What’s your favorite track to play in the Conspirator catalogue?
GS: That’s a hard one to answer because each song has something distinctive I hook onto as a drummer…but if I had to choose one I’d have to go with “Onamae Wa.” Stylistically it’s probably closest to what I play best. It has an interesting break beat intro that I really dig where I like to take on a “call and response” approach that results in a conversational interplay between myself and the computer. I enjoy getting conceptual with music these days.
DL: Your drum and bass chops are pretty much unheard of. My ears haven’t digested such insane variation and speed since I first listened to JoJo Mayer. When did focus on drum and bass begin? Were you a big fan of the genre?
GS: Well I gotta give credit where credit is due. I probably would not be playing drum n’ bass or maybe any electronic music for that matter if it wasn’t for my partner in crime, Aaron Burnett (Sistine Criminals). I met Aaron one day on Newbury Street in Boston sometime in 2003 when he was busking. The dude had a sound like I had never heard before on saxophone. A truly original sound but still very reminiscent of guys like John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. He was creating all these crazy textures and tones and multi-phonics that sounded both organic and computerized at the same time. Straight up, he was playing live electronic music on sax, and it just completely blew me away. Eventually we got together and had a session. This dude asks me to play a D’n’B beat… I had no idea what he was talking about. I was attending Berklee College of Music and playing nothing but straight ahead jazz and neo-soul like everyone else at the time.
Basically he described to me that D’n’B beats were just James Brown funk beats sped up. So I gave it my best shot and the rest is basically history. But really from that point on we’d just dig in hard trying to understand this music – listening and picking apart every album we could get our hands on and conceptualizing ways of pulling it off as a live band. I can’t say that I was a big fan of D’n’B at first, but it grew on me the more I listened to it. The more I heard it, the more I started to identify with it as a drummer and was absolutely fascinated by the sound of programmed beats. The forward thinking, “futurist” culture and mentality that came with the territory really appealed to me as well. I eventually discovered that I had a knack for playing electronic beats and that my musical identity could speak louder through D’n’B than any other genre. It just made perfect sense for me to pursue it with passion and for the long haul.
DL: Sistine Criminals is a really awesome project that I would love to catch live. From your videos it seems like your involved in more than just drumming in Criminals. Can you talk about your contributions to this act and talk a little about what inspires you guys to make such slick, minimal jams?
GS: I can’t wait for you to check Sistine Criminals out live! There have been several different incarnations during the life span of this band resulting in very drastically different sounding music. My role for several years was mostly as drummer and co-writer. In this current duo formation, we use Ableton Live and I handle about 90% of the computer programming between the two computers. Aaron and I have shared writing responsibilities on a lot of our original music but mostly I spend a lot of my time trying to think of concepts for our live execution, while Aaron is pumping out ideas and writing tracks. In traditional terms, Aaron could be seen as the head composer while I take on responsibility as orchestrator/arranger.
Of course, our roles switch and overlap in some instances. Aaron also has the unique ability to keep up and stay ahead of the curve on current trends in electronic music, which is extremely valuable and has really enabled us to reinvent Sistine Criminals several times through the years. When it comes to our improvisations, we’re basically trying to emulate our favorite DJs and producers. We just happen to be a couple of guys playing instruments that also fuck with computers. We live for electronic music, we try to study it closely and we try to think of ourselves as electronic artists. Really what inspires us to create those minimal improvisations are the genres we’re modeling after such as Minimal Tech House. From a drumming perspective, and also in terms of musical vocabulary, when I listen to minimal tech house I just don’t hear a ton of drum fills or ton of instrumentation — it’s pretty simplistic and groove based-so I suppose as a group we’re just trying to honor that the best we can.
DL: You take an extremely simple and streamlined approach to your kit. You’re like the ultimate busker. Do you ever want to have a big complicated kit one day? I’m not sure if Zildjan will send you jagged and broken cymbals once they sponsor you.
GS: In all honesty, I’m not as interested in huge complicated kits as I am interested in kits that have the right tools for the job. I actually get kind of overwhelmed sitting behind a kit with fifty toms and cymbals! I might be a little old fashioned by saying that I’m of the school of thought that “less is more.” This could be for a few reasons though. For one — I never owned my own drum kit ’til I was a senior in high school. Because I lived in an apartment, I had to keep my drums at school. I found myself on a practice pad most of the time so I never really got accustomed to playing a full set of drums unless I was either at school or at a friend’s place.
Secondly, when I started getting deep into jazz drumming, I discovered how masters like Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams didn’t require huge kits and were still able to draw out the most unthinkable sounds and colors out of their drums and cymbals. There were a lot of dimensions to those guys and how they played, even on such minimal set ups. It really illustrated for me how deep an art form drumming really was.
Lastly, I try to create my set-ups with the style of music I’m playing in mind. I still haven’t found that single set-up that works for every style. I tend to change things up quite a bit based on the situation. When it comes specifically to playing things like drum ‘n’ bass for example, it’s more about the snare, hat and kick drum combinations and the occasional tom fill for me. However, if I were to join a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute band tomorrow, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be playing a pretty sick rack of toms and cymbals!
DL: Single or double pedal and why?
GS: Single pedal! If you can do it all with one pedal, you can always just add that second pedal in for that extra push over the cliff. Kinda like turning your amp up to 11, I also like my hi-hat to be tight and close to my snare, and that can be hard to accommodate with that extra pedal getting in the way. Plus you save the hassle of bringing multiple pedals to the gig!
DL: How do you continue to improve as a drummer? Do you find that simply playing shows and watching other drummers has expanded your vocabulary, or are you actively seeking out new things to learn in your free time?
GS: I like to work on my technique to keep things sharp and challenge myself. Always scoping out other drummers for inspiration. Playing shows to keep the energy alive. Anything or anyone that’s gonna force me to raise my standards as a drummer and musician! But mostly these days I look to programmed beats to grow and improve — and lately it’s been trap beats.
DL: What three words best summarize your experience drumming?
GS: Searching. Identity. Challenging.
Finish these sentences:
“Every drummer should have ____.”
GS: extra hi-hat clutch.
“The key to strong stamina behind the kit is a___.”
GS: healthy life-style and regular practice.
“Behind every good drummer, there is ____.”
GS: A GIANT GONG!