Without a doubt the most prolific and well-connected drummer in what remains a vibrant New York City music scene (despite what the other sites will tell you), Linda Pitmon has collabed with everyone from Sleater Kinney and REM members in supergroup Filthy Friends to Scott McCaughey to her husband Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate. From her home base in Elmhurst, Queens, Linda lets us know about her unconventional path to percussion mastery, her many, many, many ongoing projects, and what it was like to live in one of the world’s worst hit couple of blocks during the height of the pandemic.
I see you are self taught as a drummer. Sometimes I feel as if lessons can confine one’s innate ability. Not for all but a majority of musicians I gravitate towards leaned away from formal lessons
That’s partly true. I studied drums in school from age 9 through high school in both the band and orchestra, but I taught myself how to play a drum SET after that. I took my early lessons in school quite seriously and really enjoyed orchestra a lot. The only other drummer with me there was an unlikely and very talented guy called Billy who had hair down his back and worshiped Rush. The two of us had to cover all the different parts so we were running from timpani to glockenspiel to triangle….we had a gas.
I didn’t have access to a drum set until junior high school where I would spend lunch hour watching the guys a couple years ahead of me playing in the rehearsal room. When I finally had a chance to whack on it, I was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to shake off a certain mindset that came from reading music and playing in a regimented way. I wanted to fly, but all I could think of were the patterns and parts I’d been working to perfect in school. After a while I was able to put some of the technical things I’d learned to good use behind the kit, but I first had to forget what I already knew.
It took me a while to make the breakthrough, but after one or two lessons from one of those guys I managed to get my hands separated from my feet – which happens in the brain. It’s all about the autonomy of limbs and then learning how to conceptualize different back beats. Once I could conceive of a rhythm I found I could generally figure out how to execute it. Then it was just a matter of listening to records and trying to replicate the approaches that excited me. I wasn’t going for anything too insane, mind you – It’s not like I was aspiring to be Bill Bruford, though Lark’s Tongue in Aspic IS one of my favorite records of all-time it. I gravitated toward the British R&B drummers of the 60’s, like Keith Moon, Kenney Jones, Viv Prince, Charlie Watts, Ringo, Mitch Mitchell) and punk-era heroes like Topper Headon, Chris Mars, DJ Bonebrake, Pete Thomas, Hugo Burnham and Terry Chambers. But one of my all-time favorite drummers is Dave Mattacks, who is primarily known for his work in Fairport Convention but who has an incredible and diverse discography. He’s on albums as disparate as Bryter Layter by Nick Drake, Before and After Science by Brian Eno. He’s on solo albums by Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Jimmy Page and made pop records with XTC, The Chills, and Everything But The Girl.
One year Steve asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I replied without hesitation, “a drum lesson from Dave Mattacks”. I will be forever grateful that he made that wish come true!
Your Signature steady back beat is all over Filthy Friends’ “Angels”. Do Corin & Peter write your part or do you add your own touch?
I write my own parts. It’s very rare that anyone comes to me with a part in mind before we sit down. When someone brings a song into one of the various projects I have (most of which involve Peter and Scott) we typically all just fall in with our own thing. Then I’ll work with whoever is playing bass to make sure there’s nothing conflicting going on in terms of accents or pushes. These days I’m usually playing with either Mike Mills or Scott McCaughey on bass. I have a pretty telepathic thing going with both of them so words aren’t always necessary to get where we need to go, but occasionally we’ll need break down a problematic chorus or something and try several approaches before we’re all happy.
“November Man” eerily paints a picture of these trying times. Your drumming is fierce. Did the gist of the song,recorded last year, get you fired up?
Oh yes, the subject matter is certainly something to get worked up about. I’m a big fan of using tom patterns as the predominant backbeat. I love the primitive and sometimes sinister effect it can have. This approach can create a tension and a dynamic that can be uncoiled when you switch over to the snare like I do on “November Man”.
“Only Lovers are Broken/Only children are free….this must be an upside down world” Sadly now even the kids aren’t free during pandemic pandemonium. What have you been doing in this Alternative Universe? Have any shows been cancelled for you?
I like to think that we’re still free, just adjusting to some new cultural and health-related norms. Now that we are able to make trips to the grocery store (always with a mask, of course) I don’t feel massively inhibited in my daily routine. My husband and I live a block away from Elmhurst hospital in Queens, NY – the epicenter of the epicenter in March and April. The outbreak in our area was terrifying to be honest, so everyone here wears masks everywhere. I’d say it’s a 94% compliance rate, so I feel very confident getting out and about in the neighborhood again.
As far as travel and tours go, that’s another story. An April tour of the U.K. with Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and the insanely talented Luke Haines (of Auteurs/Black Box Recorder/Baader Meinhof fame) was canceled. The record we made with Luke came out in March and is called “Beat Poetry for Survivalists”. It’s dark and funny and surreal. Syd Barrett with a pop sensibility. Luke is a great English eccentric, brilliant songwriter and a real gentleman so I’m very sorry that this tour didn’t happen before the world got set on it’s ear. Shows have been postponed until October so we’ll see what happens then. In the meantime, I suggest everyone give the record a listen.
Just prior to that, in late March Steve and I were scheduled to play a festival in Vadsø, a Norwegian town in the Arctic in the region of Finnmark where Norway, Russia, and Finland all meet up. We were going to play a Steve Wynn set there with Cait O’Riordan from The Pogues on bass with us, and we were also going to be the backing band for Peter Perrett from the Only Ones, along with Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub, Scott and and Peter. Mike Mills was going too so I think the plan was also to play a short set of R.E.M. songs with him and Peter. I was looking forward to all that as well as some Filthy Friends shows on the west coast in May, but it’s all going to have to wait until the coast is clear.
What is on what I call The Social Distancing aka Stay 6 Fking Feet Away playlist? What’s in your ear buds?
Let’s see, yesterday it was the new one from Fontaines, DC, The Byrds, Rolling Coastal Blackout Fever, Thelonius Monk….we’re looking forward to hearing the new one from Khruangbin. I also like listening to the radio. Yes, the radio. WFMU, WFUV, and WKCR are my NYC favorites.
You work on a few projects, Filthy Friends with Corin and Peter as well as the Baseball Project with someone named Steve… I like that you mix it up? Do you cater to the band of the moment’s rhythmic style do you just bring your usual Pitmonster brand of sassy drumming?
I have several projects with Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck that also sometimes include others from our group of musician friends, like Steve Wynn, and Mike Mills. We all play together in The Baseball Project where we have written about 70 original songs about baseball. True story! Filthy Friends is with Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney and has Kurt Bloch on guitar. Scott and Peter and I also made a 2nd record with Joseph Arthur under the moniker Arthur/Buck last year that I’m hoping will be released soon. There’s the Luke Haines project that I mentioned earlier, and we’ve done numerous tours backing Scott who is the genius behind The Minus 5. We had a very raucous time presenting his excellent record, Stroke Manor last summer. Let’s see, am I missing anything? Oh, I did some touring with them backing Alejandro Esccovedo a few years back and there is hope that they’ll get around to writing another record together sometime soon.
With the core team of me, Scott and Peter I’m cognizant of keeping a specific flavor at the forefront of each band so that the projects all have a distinctive feel. It’s not difficult to do considering the breadth of artists that we’re collaborating with, and they are all capable of rocket-fueled punk screes or tender moments, so no one is in any danger of falling into ruts. I try to keep Filthy Friends more angular than the more soulful Joseph Arthur material, for instance. Bill Rieflin was the drummer on the first Filthy Friends record but I played all the live shows so I channeled his love of Budgie (from Siouxie Sioux). Then I leaned on that side of my playing when we went in to record the follow-up, Emerald Valley to maintain a consistency.
I get a kick out of The Baseball Project’s songs. I am especially drawn to your pops of percussion and harmonizing with Steve on “Ted Fucking Williams”. Also on “The Panda and The Freak” (Pablo Sandoval & Tim Linceceum) Thanks for the Baseball nickname reference. Having alot of fun listening to these songs. Do you help write the lyrics?
Thanks! I think The Baseball Project is where I play most like my ‘inner self’ – no abandon. Steve and Scott split the songwriting duties (with Mike contributing with one to the last record) and they both cover a lot of musical ground that is very much in my wheelhouse. The playing comes easily and I think everyone is comfortable really letting their personality out in these songs with very little self-censorship. There’s a lot of humor AND pathos in the subject matter and I think it comes out in the playing
The only lyric I’ve written for the Baseball Project is my verse in Fairweather Fans. I did help weed through songs during the first writing session in Portland back in December of 2007, and then help them to edit the scads of lyrics Steve and Scott brought in. My decree was that there are “too many statistics and too many lists….we can’t have songs with so many numbers in them!”
Jody Stephens mentioned you to me because of his involvement with Golden Smog. He spoke highly of you as a true professional. I have read similar comments. What was it like drumming for that crew? I am into that super group now. They are the real deal. Take a read of my article “This Is Not A Supergroup”. Ginger Baker makes an appearance at the end. That was Dan’s touch.
Jody Stephens has been an inspiration to me since I first heard Big Star in 1985. I had never played drums in a band before but I told myself that if I did, I’d want to sound like him. So it was a huge thrill to get to share drumming duties with him on the last Golden Smog album, Another Fine Day. I went to Spain to record with the band who are some of my oldest friends (I’m originally from Minneapolis) and then they had Jody come in to do some tracks with them when they got back in Minneapolis. Jody is kind, generous, and has one of the most unique approaches to drums that I’ve ever heard. You know, there’s a Ringo style, a Charlie style….Bonham, Moon…and then Jody. He has his own genre, in my book.
Photo Credit: Tammy Shine