Like so many of us, keyboardist Todd Marston spent the long hours during the pandemic lockdowns looking within. He re-committed himself to the work of practicing and writing new music and wound up with a wealth of new material at his disposal. Much of that has seen the light of day over the past couple of years, including Solidarity Themes, an album of songs inspired by the progressive political movements that been gaining steam in D.C. and on the streets of America, and a new collection of material with his trio integer Live at Blue Butler Studios.
This groundswell of music has culminated in Marston's recently released album Seven Songs, Six Drummers. The title that gives away the information that he worked with a half-dozen separate percussionists on seven different songs, including his integer bandmate Micah Hummel and New Yorker Aine Fujioka. But the wonder of this collection goes so much deeper than the plain facts. Tapping into the talents of these various players allows Marston to explore rich ambient / fusion textures on "Always Possible" where he's joined by drummer Ziv Ravitz, and New Orleans grooves on "Giunta Flower," a tune that makes brilliant use of saxophonist Nicole McCabe and the song's namesake Josh Giunta on drums.
As he explains in our interview, Seven Songs was created with all the musicians working on their parts remotely, leaving Marston and key collaborator Sacha Müller to mix it all together as smoothly as possible. They do incredible work on that front. If you can hear any of the seams in this recording, you've got much better ears than I. In advance of his album release party tonight (March 17) at Strum, I spent some time on the phone with its creator to get the lowdown on its genesis and some of the personalities behind it all.
What can you tell me about how you conceived of this project?
A big part of the COVID lockdown for me was really dedicating myself to recording, performing and composing. Just digging into that fully. I didn’t know this at the time but what it meant was that each one of the recordings I did would be trying something new out or fulfilling a different role for me. The solo record was my own kind of inner process, being with myself and locked down The Integer stuff was to reset my intention with that trio and start to make some stuff happen. The Solidarity Themes album was probably the big one because that really meant a lot to pursue and get the grant for it and everything.
Then there was this other angle of reconnecting people long distance. All of the sudden, I have this extra time and I’m reflecting on the importance of these relationships that I fostered in Boston and New York. So I reconnected with a handful of people and through our talks realized we could do these long distance recordings and have fun. The drums have been my favorite musical instrument for my whole life. So I was really excited to get to connect with different drummers and have this vehicle to do it. I’ve been really thankful for people to be so willing to jump on board.
Since you love the drums so much, when you’re writing songs, especially for this album, do you then start with a rhythm in mind or are you thinking more melodically first?
It depends on the piece. One thing that I’m trying to foster for myself is that there’s so many different uses of music in my life. We can use music to describe anything. So if I’m feeling like there’s something weighty I need to get off my chest, or maybe I’m going through a breakup or a difficult internal experience, the drums might not be the first thing that I’m hearing. I might sit at the piano and cycle on a chord progression or find a melody as I’m walking in the woods and processing. All of that is just as important. But when I think about the collaborative side of music, and I think about playing with friends, usually there’s something that brings in a kind of fun energy as well. That’s definitely where this record goes.
Working on an album long distance feels like such a complicated process. Was it comfortable for you to piece the music together in that way?
I’ve really buckled down in the last five years in devoting myself to writing, recording, and performing. And since devoting myself, what I’ve found is that I already have connections to people who are highly skilled in all these different areas. That’s really what made it happen. I don’t envy people who are trying to do all these things from the ground up. Sacha Müller was huge for me in this process. He was the former head engineer at Dead Aunt Thelma’s and so every time I needed to use a studio to mix or lay down a piano part, I would head over there.
You have a credit on the album for MLTZR, who is the producer and musician Alex Meltzer, doing sound design on the track “CERTAIN.” How did you come to work with him?
Seeing him do a live score for Robocop back in September or October left me so inspired. We were building the song together, and he was going to make the beat. But one of his closest friends is Micah Hummel. They live together and have partnered on everything from music projects to opening Homeroom Studios. So as we were building this beat, Alex and I looked at each other and said, “You know, it would be awesome to have Micah play on this one, too.” We both decided to scrap the beat and have Micah record. We kept a couple of the elements that Alex helped co-produce. We used one of his roommate’s Mellotron for the vibraphone sounds. The coolest part was he put the drums through MIDI on the really intense orchestral parts. So there’s all this 808 drum machine stuff triggered by the microphones. This kind of swirling sound under the drums.
Who are you going to be playing with at the release show?
I’ve got two string players: Alexis Mahler on violin and viola and Harlan Silverman on cello. I’ve got Leon Cotter on tenor and Justin Copeland on trumpet, and they’re both going to do some auxiliary keyboard stuff. Alex Meltzer is going to be there helping design the sound a little bit. Micah will be playing drums, and Jordan Scannella is in from Brooklyn to play bass. It’s kind of a large ensemble.