A Different Drummer: An interview with drummer Brian Levy of
When LA-based alternative rockers Portable, released their 1999 debut, Secret Life, their decidedly retro sound was very similar to Britain’s Gang Of Four; a late ’70s / early ’80s post-punk influence echoed in the band’s visual image of matching dark suits and skinny ties. Three years later, what may have been perceived as a dramatic leap in style from Secret Life to its successor, Only If You Look Up was simply a creative journey drummer Brian Levy chalks up to the natural growth process of his band. “On our new record, we really wanted to see how far we could take our creativity and our imagination,” he explains. With our first record, we had several years to write, try out and record songs. There was less time to prepare the material for Only If You Look Up, but we still wanted to venture into and explore some new areas.” Only If You Look Up, an engaging and ambitiously diverse collection of rock styles, was released in the spring of 2002 on the TVT label, but the band have since parted ways with TVT and regained ownership of the album.
Asked to describe his band for someone who had never heard Portable before, Brian says confidently, “We’re very similar to a band like Our Lady Peace, but we always tell people that if you were to take the Foo Fighters, The Smashing Pumpkins and U2 and Radiohead and kind of put them in a blender, that’s what Portable sounds like. The thing is, there’s a lot of bands that sound like other bands, and I won’t go into naming any of those bands,” he laughs, “but there are a lot of bands that basically ride the coattails of whatever is happening. Any Nu Metal band or any three-piece pop/punk type of a thing, they all follow the same guidelines and their records all sound very similar. So, even though I say if you put all of those bands I mentioned in a blender, you’d come up with Portable, you’re not going to really hear any of those bands, blatantly, in Portable’s sound. It’s sort of a Catch 22 for the band: it’s the good thing and the bad thing about the band, because it seems that in order to be successful these days you need to follow along the lines of what’s popular. We aren’t your typical band that fits right in with whatever is on the K-Rocks or the active rock stations. This record has really only been released to college radio and we’re not anywhere on commercial radio at all. Music is music and it’s all kind of been done before, but we try to put our own twist on it, our own signature. Hopefully people will start to catch on to that.
“I think the strongest point to Portable is our live show.” he continues. “The record sounds great and another thing that’s cool about it is that I think we got a little bit closer to capturing what the band sounds like live than we did on the previous record. We’re a great, exciting live band. If we can just get out there we’ll be golden.”
Here’s to golden days.
How did you start playing drums and who were some of your early influences?
I started at a very early age. I was one of those ‘[beating on] pots and pans” kids. My parents got me my first drumset when I was five or six. I guess that’s the same story that everybody tells. When I was 10 I started taking lessons and went on to play with friends in school. Then I joined my first band in high school and have been playing ever since. I was in a band called The Kind and I’ve done a lot of sessions around LA and just played with a variety of different people.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Tony Thompson and was into drummers that are just really, really heavy groove players. I also liked Duran Duran and loved Roger Taylor. For my current playing style, I was really influenced by Jimmy Chamberlain and Dave Grohl — those guys changed my life completely. But early on I was really into the whole funk thing. I really like Kenny Aronoff and a few other drummers that have had a profound influence on my playing are Liberty DeVito, Stewart Copeland and Phil Collins.
You do cover a lot of styles on Only If You Look Up and that creates a very balanced rock record.
We also had a line up change in-between records — we have a new bass player now — so that had a pretty profound effect on the sound and the overall attitude of the band. I think Only If You Look Up is a lot more diverse; like walking through a really big house, where you enter each room, and each room has its own thing going on. Secret Life was more like being in one room. I like the fact that this one has more diversity. As far as us stretching our wings, we ventured off into some areas that we wanted to explore. I think our third record is going to be [the one] where we define what Portable is, because with this record you can still tell there is a definitive Portable sound, but the next record will be a lot more focused — I can say this because we’ve already started writing for that record.
Because the album is such a mix of rock styles, do you think the process of recording really allowed you to stretch chops-wise, or allowed you the opportunity to learn something new?
Very much so. On our first record, even though I had done sessions, I was pretty green. On this record we worked with Brad Wood, who’s just an amazing producer, and we became friends. You know, he’s a drummer also, he played for Liz Phair, so it was cool to work with him. When we made our first record I felt like, ” this is my band and this is my first record, and this is, like, forever.” On the second record, I was a lot more relaxed and felt like “just go for it,” you know, and whatever comes out, comes out. I’m so much more proud of the performances on this new record than the first record. It’s just night and day.
Is there any programming on the record?
On the song “Suffocate,” the verses are a drum loop. I played a couple different loops and one went on that song. So, there’s a couple loops I played myself, but other than that, not really. And all that loop stuff I just play live. As far as the sample and loops and noises that you hear, that aren’t percussive or drum oriented, all that stuff is triggered by our bass player, Sebastian, who’s got a little sampler. He’s crazy, he a total knob tweaker. When he’s not in Portable he does all these drum ‘n’ bass weird techno things, and he likes to incorporate some of that into Portable.
Your drumming on “A Man Destroys” is off the hook, with the way the beat builds in urgency. How was that song recorded?
That song was written, actually, before we recorded Secret Life. There were just some changes that needed to happen to the song, so that drum part is really, really old, maybe 4 years old. That part was taken from a hip hop influence I guess, because it’s not your traditional, straight forward drum groove, but it’s not really hip hop-y. It’s like hip hop meets heavy rock, I guess. It’s just a groove that has a lot of snare drum incorporated in the actual feel of the groove, and there’s like snare drum stutters off the hi hat. It’s just like a two-handed snare thing that I do while I’m playing the rest of the groove. It just sounds cool.
Your drums sound great, and you have this amazing sound to your toms. What do you attribute that to?
I play Pork Pie drums and I’ve never really had a drum tech on any of my records. I basically do my own drum tuning and I play with regular sticks. I just tune my toms kind of low and to the natural tone of the shell. There’s nothing that much involved, it’s just the drums that I play.
I know Pork Pie is a small drum company, but everyone who plays those drums just seems to love them. What do you like about them?
I’ve known Bill (Detamore), the owner, since 1990 or ’91. At that time I was just finishing high school and I started working at Pork Pie, actually. I used to help Bill in his garage when he first started his company, and I met Mike Fasano (Warrant drummer and famous LA Drum Tech) at the same time. Mike and I got our first Pork Pie kits within weeks of each other. We were actually going to trade snare drums when we first got our kits, because we thought that would be cool — like we’d be “Drum Brothers” or something (laughs). The funny thing is, I didn’t want to do it, because I was so attached to and in love with my new kit. Looking back on it now, I wish I would have, because now Mike’s, like, the “Drum Tech to the Stars” pretty much and that drum’s been on some amazing records. But I’ve known Bill for a long time and it’s been a great relationship. I watched it go from being him just making drums in his garage to it being a full-blown huge drum company, even though it’s not as mainstream as dw and Yamaha and Pearl. He’s grown the company by leaps and bounds. And the drums just sound great: they sound great all the time, wherever you are. If you know how to tune them, and don’t put like totally fat stupid heads on them, there’s no problem.
“Bright” is one of my favorite songs on the album, and I wondered if that song was special to you as well, as far as how to did your drum parts?
Not so much from a drumming standpoint, but that song is kind of special to my band in general, because it helped get us out of a little funk that we were in when we were in a weird phase of being in the band. You go through your ups and downs and that song really came at the perfect time and brought us a lot closer as a band and reassured everybody that we were all doing the right thing.
Which tracks are your favorites?
I like “Better Get the Daisies Out” because it’s a lot of fun to play live. I really like the hidden track on the record, “Freaks” and, speaking of Keith Moon, out of respect to him at the end of that song I do my best Keith Moon imitation (laughs) because the whole track just sort of falls apart and does this whole thing at the end. That was a lot of fun. I also like “Suffocate” a lot, that’s a great song and one of my favorite drum tracks. You know what? Overall I’m just really proud of this record, I like the whole record.
Do you have some kind of a day job?
I don’t work full time, but I have other interests besides drums. I’m into graphic design so I do work during the day for a graphic design company. I do that when we’re not on the road, and what’s cool about that is I can make my own schedule and stuff like that. I’m constantly looking just to play, though, that’s my whole thing.