Deantoni Parks is a New York City based drummer/songwriter whose boundary pushing playing with Kudu in the early 2000’s helped establish him as one of the most forward thinking drummers within modern music.
His musical vocabulary is tastefully unique and his precision and creativity on the drums are second to none. He has collaborated with a multitude of eclectic artists including Meshell Ndegeocello, John Cale and Asteroid Power-up!. Deantoni is also the most recent addition to The Mars Volta and plays along side TMV founder Omar Rodriguez Lopez in Bosnian Rainbows, along with Nicci Kasper and Teri Gender Bender.
Beginning drumming at the age of 2, Deantoni’s musical background is deeply routed in jazz and funk, though the later influence of drum & bass clearly helped to further develop his stylistic approach to playing and his ability to creatively sub-divide rhythms. Described by Omar Rodriguez Lopez as “single handedly the most talented and unique drummer ever”, his approach towards playing is inspiring, as is his ability to perform and think well outside of the box.
SIGHT/SOUND/RHYTHM spoke to Deantoni a few hours before a Bosnian Rainbows show in Leeds, UK about approaches to drumming, musical motivations, and his thoughts on music education.
Nicci Kaspar is also in the group, are you still working together in Kudu?
Yes, that’s been our thing together for many years and we still have a new record that hasn’t come out yet, but we’ve done so much with that project, so it’s still there and isn’t really going anywhere, but this is something of a timely nature so we just wanted to just put it out there right away and go from there.
When are you hoping to put out the Kudu record?
Hopefully sometime next year.
Will this one be coming out under a different name?
Yeah, we’ve changed the name of the group to Art World Killer.
I think the last Kudu albums I heard were Death of the Party and the self titled album from 2001.
That was a really important time period for me. Nicci and I have been working together since then so we have a very tight bond, you know.
Did you both meet at Berklee?
Well not at the school, but when I was living in Boston I met him there.
How have the shows with Bosnian Rainbows been received so far?
It’s been very, very good with the response and the attitude of people embracing something new. We can’t complain at all about that. I think Teri is one of the best front women around and people are just starting to get to know her.
You just recently released your first solo album Touch but Don’t Look on Rodriguez Lopez Productions…
Yeah, on RLP. I think we’re going to do it on CD so I have something that people can get at live shows.
Will you be using a similar approach to the one you have when playing live in Bosnian Rainbows?
Yeah, in Bosnian Rainbows I’m doing drums and synths as well as drum sounds. There’s a lot of synth and melodies at the same time. I’ve always been into keyboards since I was young and this is the perfect way to showcase that interest that I have, because it is the same family as piano and percussion, so it is very closely related. For me it’s so full, to be able to do that, and I tend to go towards things that I don’t see people doing a lot.
How did you go about writing the album? Does much of it stem from rhythms or were you focusing on the composition as a whole?
That was all me, and it’s material that I’ve had for many years and it reflects my earliest influences, that was the point of this first release, so you really see where I’m coming from. It’s not like I’m trying to be so eighties but it’s just what I grew up with, so it’s just to show respect to that world. I’m sure the next thing that I do will be very different from that.
Are you planning to release a follow up soon?
I want to release as many records as I can. I have lots of material.
Switching topics for a minute, what led you to start playing drums initially?
It happened when I was very young and is something I don’t know too much about. My grandmother was the first one to acknowledge that I was doing something because I would be with her everyday, so she would see me playing. My parents didn’t believe her at first. My uncle got me a kit and I just started playing. It just happened like that. So, yeah, it just kinda happened.
I took lessons when I was five for reading and for rudiments, but never for drum kit. That was always a natural thing, but the reading and rudimental side was definitely installed early. I’m glad I can still do it.
So you haven’t had any physical problems as a player?
No. I did in high school. I had carpal tunnel syndrome but I switched my diet and it helped everything. Since then I’ve become a vegetarian. I’m not an advocate for it but in my case I feel it helps.
You became involved with Basquiat’s group Grey. How did that come about?
Just from being in New York and running into people. In this case I met Michael Hallman, who was the screen writer for Downtown ‘81, he was the drummer in Grey. He asked me if I would play on the record which is material that hadn’t been released from 1979 all the way up until the ’90s, and I was obviously very interested in that scene and the culture in New York at that time, so to be involved in that was something interesting for me. I’m working closely with Michael and Nick Taylor and we just look up to them, you know. It’s great to be involved with them.
That’s the Shades of Grey record?
Yeah. We’re working on a new record, too. We’re going to be doing more things together.
Having worked with such a diverse group of musicians, how have you found it adapting to each of the situations you’ve been involved in? I should imagine that working with someone like Meshell Ndegeochello is vastly different than working with someone like John Cale or Omar Rodriguez Lopez.
Completely different, yeah. You just have to treat each one as being completely different. There’s a different protocol with each one and people have different needs and wishes that you have to work with. You just have to be adaptable and be there but don’t be there, if you know what I mean. I don’t really talk all that much I just try to… Now, with the people you just mentioned, I’ve been working with them for so long that we have a different working relationship. We talk and we joke a lot more but it’s still serious. It’s something that you just grow into with each artist. I’ve been lucky just to work with just a few people so I can build those relationships.
Are you still playing with John Cale?
I’m on his new record. Right now I’m putting all of my time into Bosnian Rainbows, but I still have a relationship with him. John’s probably my favourite living musician.
With a lot of your playing, especially live, there’s a feeling of constant change within the rhythms. I always think of your playing as being not too dissimilar to the remixing or editing of a track, as and when the moment occurs. Would you say that’s a fair assumption?
Yeah, my influences of the last fifteen years have been less of people and more of the engineering and editing behind it. So I guess that’s in line with what you’re talking about.
Having being involved in both film and music do you find there’s a transferable influence between the two?
Definitely. I love film, as does the whole band. I mean, obviously Omar’s pretty involved with his films too. I have certain influences. There’s the film I was in, which Omar got me involved with when we were doing the soundtrack. I was basically just playing myself and don’t ever aspire to be in a film. So to be in a film where I was essentially just playing myself was awesome. It’s all performance.
Besides that I do a lot with David Holmes, who’s a film supervisor and composer. He does a lot of Steven Soderbergh films, who did all of the Ocean’s Eleven remakes, so I do a lot with him. I’d love to do more scores. Right now I’m scoring something for my friend Rikki Kasso, who did this amazing Japanese documentary. Again, that’s just me being into the John Cale world, who has amazing scores, and I’m really trying to get on that level, because I really respect it.
Are you still teaching?
Not at the moment. I’m still technically an instructor at Berklee and still teach at other places too. I used to teach at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, that was while I was in school. I was doing that throughout the summer, through Peter Stoltzman, who really got me into the education side. It’s interesting. It exposes your own weaknesses and strengths. Plus I like trying to help younger and older students.
I should imagine that being in both Boston and New York helped expose you to a lot of different experiences. What were you exposed to that you’ve valued the most?
Probably just the people. I knew I had to be in a place where there was a traffic of artists and intellectuals, you know, just a lot of different classes of people, because that’s where you really find the people that you’ll have an opportunity to learn from. You have to be in somewhere like L.A. or New York, or some kind of metropolis where there are a lot of schools and there’s a learning environment. So being in places like those were very helpful.
Are a lot of the ideas you’re playing already thought out or does much of it rely upon serendipity?
There’s definitely a vocabulary going on that I’ve taken from my jazz history and the funk history before that, and even some of the more classical percussion. Every style you put in there becomes your vocabulary. The drum and bass stuff is still in there. You can still hear it even when I’m playing this set, so I’m really trying to encompass all of it and use it all together, no matter what style. Nothing is different unless you use everything together.
I think the amalgamation of those influences is definitely present in your playing, regardless of who you’re playing with. Its definitely an identifiable sound you’ve created for yourself.
The older I get the more I really notice it. What I’m trying to do is keep it all together.
Absolutely. I just recently picked up two of the Meshell Ndegeochello records you played on.
Oh, which ones?
I got Devil’s Halo…
Man, that’s one of my favourites. She’s so amazing. Me and Nicci wrote five songs together on her latest record Weather. You gotta check Weather out if you like Devil’s Halo.
Definitely. I also have The World Has Made Me The Man of My Dreams.
That’s the first one I played on. The writing is great. I’m very lucky to have people like her, and the guys in the band hear me say these names everyday, you know, John Cale, Meshell Ndegeocello. It’s the same with Omar, who’s one of those people that I happen to gravitate towards, because we just have so much in common. I knew I didn’t fit into a lot of places but the few I work with have worked for a reason. I fit with the same people who try to encompass many different things.
Has there been any project that you felt hasn’t worked as well as it could?
No, I feel as though every one has worked. With Kudu we never had a big label deal and we toured for many years, did a lot of things that other bands did, but for what ever reason it didn’t rise above a certain point, but we don’t consider that to be a failure. It’s made us into who we are.
If anything it’s about a personal achievement, which is the most important thing musically.
It is. Just because you didn’t get a certificate for it doesn’t mean you didn’t accomplish anything. But to get a certificate is nice too. [laughs]
Absolutely! How did formally studying at Berklee fit in with your approach to playing when you were there? I mean, your approach isn’t conventional. Did you stand out as a player?
Oh definitely. When I got there no one was trying to play drum and bass or Squarepusher, they didn’t even really listen to anything like Cujo or Photek at that time, so I jumped on it. I always listened to electronic music since I was younger, so that was always a big thing for me. So that was where I clashed with people from conservatories or places like Berklee, because they were still trying to master their instrument. I’m not saying I’d mastered my instrument but I was beyond that point of skill. It was like, I need concept now. So that’s why I went after it, because I didn’t see anyone else doing it. At the time there was Jojo Mayer, who’s an amazing drummer from Switzerland and is now based in New York. He came to early Kudu shows and was always helpful. When I go to New York we talk and he tried to get me endorsements. He’s a true friend. Someone I definitely respect on the drums.
Berklee was an excuse for me get out of Georgia and to get closer to that group of people that I was talking about. You know, that traffic and flow that I needed to get entangled in and that’s how I looked at it.
My personal growth was humongous because it was a place where I could be alone and have the choice of finding people on my own, like Nicci and my favourite professor, who they kicked out of the school. I found him there. So the school was just an excuse. But it’s something I don’t take for granted either. Having a degree isn’t very popular in this field, for art, and it’s basically viewed as being pointless, but it’s a personal thing. So that’s how I treated it. I knew it was a big time for me to really create my identity. It’s worth going for just so you can sleep at night, you know. I believe in taking risks for sure.
What would you personally like to see implemented within institutions that weren’t present when you were studying?
Well, being around Berklee, Stanford, and Drummers Collective there are obviously a ton of problems.
The system of music and art, especially with institutions… I mean it’s hard to teach something that’s so abstract, so people develop systems. Berklee has a certain system towards harmony which is a specific way in which they’ve carved out their signature template of what music is. So you’re getting an opinion already. I tried to relate to the students one-on-one and open myself up to them, treating the relationship more like a one-on-one mentorship, even for a class, and to just try and make it personal, that was my main thing. I’d bring in other influences other than just music or other artists, so I had that in mind when I went back to teach. The opportunity came up and I really thought about it, like, I can do something that I didn’t get, that I didn’t receive when I was there, because time had gone by and it was many years since I had been there obviously, and things have changed a lot there since I had graduated.
How big was the gap between graduating and going back as an instructor?
Graduation was in 2000 and I taught there around two years ago maybe. So, yeah, it was a while.
Just for me to go back to be a teacher there and see my old mentors, that in itself was exciting. It’s like being paid to go back to school…it’s fun! [laughs] And I still have my ID card from school! You know, the same picture and everything. I get there and they’re like, ‘wait, hold on’, and I go, ‘I’m an instructor, I go in here now.’ [laughs] So that was fun.
I really like to connect with people. I do in general, you know, to have people’s attention. I was recommending movies and actors to check out to influence their music. Just things I didn’t have teachers say to me necessarily. So that was my whole approach. That’s how I intend to teach. That’s what you get from me. Lifestyle. Not just some technique. It’s more about concept.
They all have their own machine where they pump out the meat. Look at Berklee, I mean, John Mayer…there’s a long list of people who all have a similar thing somehow.
Exactly. I think it’s great that you’d go back and try to fill in the gaps that you felt were there from when you were a student.
Absolutely, and I hope to continue to do that. I think Red Bull Academy is doing some really amazing things within the teaching world, bringing it back to a personal level, and getting it away from the academic side.
What are your main motivations as a drummer and as a musician on the whole? What keeps you interested and focused as a player?
Writing music. When I saying writing I mean programming, piano stuff, just writing songs and instrumental pieces. I’m really into Eric Satie, Klaus Schulze, Vangelis, obviously Brian Eno, so those are things which really keep music fresh for me. Occasionally I’ll check out what drummers are doing but mostly it’s that kind of music which really pushes me.
I have a project called Dark Angels with Nikki Casper and that’s like a study for us. We’ll go back and do a Tina Turner song; Stevie Nicks or Elvis. These are people that we put on a higher level, especially in comparison to the artists we have now. Those artists really stand out so we wanted to make that site and have that there as part of a study. It’s more school, you know, and being able to share that with people is something we’re into. That project is what fuels all the other writing we do. It’s that concept of being able to write with people we’ll never be able to physically write with, but with technology you can almost make it happen with the raw materials that they left behind. That is the most interesting thing to me.
Right now I’m working on a remix of Venus with Furs, just playing with the sound. I just did a Morrissey one. I did a Deniece Williams one recently, who’s a ’90s R&B vocalist. My uncle wanted me to do it before he passed away. He said, “you should do something with this song”. So I just recently did that just to connect with my uncle. It’s really out of these necessities for connection. That’s the inspiration of all this. Otherwise, ok, it’s cool, it’s music, but it has to have a deeper meaning. It also pushes the art and takes you to that place that you can’t practise or get to. So it’s a valuable weapon for that: to use those emotions.
Are there any players in particular, both in terms of drumming and music in general who are really catching your attention right now?
There are so many good players, too many to mention. For me it’s the people that I have an emotional tie to, like John Cale. Why am I so stuck on him? Because he took a chance on me before anyone knew who I was. I was twenty three and he chose me over the guy who was playing with David Bowie at the time, just because he had a conversation with me, so that said a lot to me, and we’ve ended up working together a lot since then. He’s on a massive tour now. If I wasn’t doing this then I’d probably be with him, just because I learned so much from him. It’s a life-long mentorship and that’s what I’m interested in. That’s what I need.
For more photographs from this interview please go to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sightsoundrhythm/Interview and photos by Dave Jones