The Anti-drummer Drummer
Here's a multiple choice question for you: VietNam's four members A) all live together in a musician's commune-type loft, B) all love Texas, C) all have fuzzy beards and long hair, or D) are having a great time on the road with the Lemonheads.
Answer: All of the above. Oops, that wasn't one of the options, was it? But then again, VietNam rarely plays by the rules. Just ask drummer Michael Foss, who was a Houstonian before UT and then New York called him away.
"Yeah, we do things a little off the norm, you could say," he laughs.
Like hiring a drummer who can't play drums?
"Yeah," he says. "That's true. I didn't play drums until I joined the band. I had always played the guitar. I met Michael [Gerner] and Joshua [Grubb] at a party by SXSW and we went back to somebody's hotel room and we kind of bonded over bottles of Jack Daniels and throwing glasses off of the balcony. Then I saw them play in Austin with the original lineup, and later I saw them play in New York as a two-piece. I was completely blown away because they had great songs. I just kinda asked them if I could play with them because I liked their songs and they said, "Well, we need drums." I had never really played drums before. I just took it on as a challenge.
"At first, I didn't even really play, like what you would say most drummers play. I just basically started hitting [the drums] in a more primitive way. Instead of trying to play a normal beat, because I, of course, I couldn't actually follow a beat."
So why would a band hire a drummer who can't play drums? Well, it had worked before. VietNam cofounder Michael Gerner couldn't play guitar when he started the band with Joshua Grubb. That was back in 2001 when Grubb basically handed Gerner a guitar and said, "Hey, let's start a band," or something to that effect. Both Grubb and Gerner called Texas home back then. Grubb was in Austin, where he was making the rounds playing with various groups including the Prima Donnas, and Gerner was at the University of North Texas. Friends from the Austin band And They Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead had begun to get some record label attention, and they took a few record execs to see VietNam perform. It must have been a pretty good performance, because they, too, started to get noticed by the labels. But all that was before Foss's time.
"I joined in early 2003, pretty much right when it started to get serious. I played a little bit here and there on that first EP, but not much," he says.
The group plays what has been called "hippie blues," a rather indistinct genre at best, which may have helped Foss slide by on his minimal drum skills, as there was no particular style that hippie blues required.
"When I first started, I wasn't adding much," Foss says. "I just had a floor tom and a tambourine, so I was just adding little accents. From that, I started to learn. My friend Gibby from the Butthole Surfers always says the people he hates are the people with talent and creativity. I kind of agree with that. I don't have this natural talent, as far as playing without thinking about it. I kind of have to take a more creative approach to make it sound good."
How are his skills three years into his time with VietNam?
"I'm still working on them. I always want to be like an anti-drummer by playing no fills on a song. I've succeeded in doing that, I think. I play just much more simple, much more primitive than other drummers might. I try to have that Ônot thinking too much, not thinking too little' approach, like being in a trance when I play.
"I think I'm still learning. I haven't gotten to any sort of place where I feel like I know what the hell I'm doing. I sort of feel like a visual artist, and I'm working with music as my medium. I don't ever think too much about it in my head. It's just rock and roll. It's not something that should get blown too out of proportion. Anything's possible playing music and that's kind of the point. That's the attitude that we have, where it's still exciting to us. I play drums in the band, if you do want to write what I do, I play drums."
VietNam opens for the Lemonheads on Thursday, February 8, at the Scout Bar, 18307 Egret Bay Blvd., 281-335-0002.
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