How Greg Fox Creates Worlds With His Drums

The New York percussionist explains how a sensory drum kit led to his twisty, architectural electronic/jazz record, The Gradual Progression.

How Greg Fox Creates Worlds With His Drums Ebru Yildiz

Greg Fox, a drummer born and raised in N.Y.C., has made a lot of music with a lot of different people. He’s played with Liturgy, Guardian Alien with Eartheater, Ex Eye, and more, and he makes music alone, too. Now he’s got another solo project, the just-released experimental jazz/electronic record, The Gradual Progression. Organized with titles like “Earth Center Possessing Stream,” “By Virtue Of Emptiness,” and “My House Of Equalizing Predecessors,” the album is hinged on process — that is, the album is focused on the making of the music itself.

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Greg told me this over the phone this Labor Day, using metaphors to explain the ideas that fueled The Gradual Progression. As a multi-disciplinary arts graduate of Bard College (his major was “Integrated Arts”), these six tracks — each between three and seven minutes long — seemed to him physical, almost like a sculpture, just like he made in school, he explained. He used the same kinds of motions to craft the twists and turns of snare and sax and timbre and mystical digital sounds on his new record.

That physicality has a lot to do with the tool Greg used to create these songs: Sensory Percussion. Invented by a friend of Greg’s named Tlacael Esparza, the contraption is a “combination of sensors to directly capture the vibrations of your entire drum” that can turn a drum set into a giant MIDI controller. In our conversation below, we dive into what it means to create space with sound, his new dream of creating a full-on physical and sensory experience with percussion, and finding his voice.

You’ve been very prolific, and involved with many different projects. How would you describe the sound of this record?

The best way I can describe it — because I think there’s a lot going on on the record — is the different inferences or places the sound can take you, as far as a sensory or spatial experience. While making the music, it felt to me like I was creating these spaces. I was kind of teaching myself and also kind of building a new instrument. It felt like doing a science experiment or something, like I was looking through a telescope into deep space and finding these planets. And then, as I focused the telescope, I would find more out about the places I was looking at. The drumming in tandem with that became like visiting or exploring the space physically, as opposed to looking at it from far away. It’s kind of environmental or architectural in certain ways. The music was triggering a lot of visual activity from me while it was coming together. And so they do kind of feel like places to me, or environments, more than songs.

It’s like the music is an invisible sculpture, and my drumming is like taking a blanket and throwing it over the invisible sculpture so you can see it. Different gestures that I make will reveal certain aspects of the terrain of the landscape. Because of the way I designed it, my exploring of the space continues to bring up new things, surprises. There was not a predetermined attempt to come up with some kind of cool concept for this, it just happened. It gives it an extended meaning for me; it feels more like the work I was doing in college, making artwork, than any music I’ve ever made before, and in a way that’s very satisfying.

What do you mean when you say you were creating your own instrument, like a science experiment?

My friend Tlacael Esparza invented this thing called Sensory Percussion, which allows you to turn an acoustic drum kit into an extremely versatile MIDI controller. That’s the short description. I’d been looking for a way to do a solo project which would combine my interest in electronic music and drumming. I didn’t want to play to a backing track, I didn’t want a drum pad sampler thing, contact mics were way too noisy for what I wanted to be doing, and I didn’t want to be treading on territory that was too familiar or close to other drummers who I really like who are doing solo projects — like Ryan Sawyer, Brian Chippendale, Brian Chase. And then my friend Tlacael came to my studio one day to show me this thing he was working on, which answered a lot of questions.

When I was using [Sensory Percussion], it was in a beta stage, before it was released publicly. A lot of [the work] was figuring out what it could even do. [The science experiment] refers to that: learning how this thing works and what you can do with it. It was years of figuring out how to use this thing. There was a moment where I was in the studio, trying to make what could have ended up being the record, and Tlacael came by. At the time I only had one sensor, and he came by with three more sensors. All of a sudden I went from only using my snare drum to interact with the computer, to being able to interact with every drum in my palette. It was this exponential thing. The thing was to figure out, with all these tools suddenly available to me, How do you limit the scope to create a workflow?

It does really bring me back to art-making in school, because a common theme of all the work I was making was about “process.” I realized in retrospect that that’s what I was doing with this [record]. It took me a while to figure it out, but once I was able to start creating all this, all of a sudden all this space came out of it. Like a science experiment, but also studio practice, like I was developing a practice or something.

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How Greg Fox Creates Worlds With His Drums Ebru Yildiz
“It’s like the music is an invisible sculpture, and my drumming is like taking a blanket and throwing it over the invisible sculpture so you can see it.”

I often feel there must be some inner — or, perhaps, outer — force that guides creation and exhibits itself in one’s work.

Did you watch that series Westworld? Our conversation right now is making me think of how they’re all kind of following a pattern they can’t not follow — it’s always there and it leads them where it leads them. In some ways, this kind of process work is like you’re projecting outward this inner architecture that you only become more aware of by trying to make a bunch of stuff — and then you look at it and you’re like, Oh, this is me.

It’s fun to roll up to a venue and play a show like you do with a band, but I’m interested increasingly in doing installations. I’m kind of free-associating right now, but I have friends who work with AR and VR and stuff like that, and I can imagine a lot of cool applications, where it can be a full sensory immersion that’s completely controlled by my drumming. I gotta figure out how to write a grant application or something. If I think about it more, I can steer the work I’m making into straddling art and music, instead of coming at it as, “Drummer makes a solo record.” I could do a performance where I’m playing the drums, and you just hear the drums, but if you put on headphones, you would hear everything else activating.

Is there something that triggered this more multiplane thinking?

I think it’s a cumulative effect of interests and influences, and also this thing about me where I’m never satisfied just doing one thing; I can’t just read one book at a time, can’t be working on one music project at a time. Bouncing back and forth between different things, letting my attention span lead me. I grew up on video games and have really deep attachments to certain video game worlds. I have a good friend who was showing me stuff he’s working on for AR and VR environments, and all this potential and possibility opened up. When I was making the music I wasn’t like, I’m gonna make this spatial, architectural, environmental music. While I was following my instincts, I started seeing things as I was listening to what I was making. It felt like I was exploring a space more than composing a piece of music.

I certainly wasn’t doing it on purpose, as much as I’d like to say I was. I’ve been in a bunch of bands, been on tour a bunch with different people. I have more of a sense of how I wanna do things, and who I wanna do stuff with, and the kinds of places I wanna play. There are some aspects of this life I’ve chosen that I like a lot. And then there are other parts of the experience that I don’t like as much, or really don’t like. It’s nice to be able to find a way to make my music in a way that it’s completely mine — and it’s not like an ownership thing. It’s like trying to figure out what your voice is. Wavering closer and closer to this sort of center, while also expanding all the different facets of what could even be contained in the circle of what you’re doing.

The Gradual Progression is out now.
How Greg Fox Creates Worlds With His Drums