"First You Make Contact" – An Interview with Drummer Greg Fox
A photo of Greg Fox
(Credit: Ebru Yildiz)

Greg Fox behind the drums is an astonishing force to experience. His performances and recordings are defined by his unique and virtuosic playing style: employing polyrhythms and explosive fast gestures to control electronic melodies and textures with Sensory Percussion. He's been a Sunhouse artist since the very beginning, beta-testing early versions of sensors and software. His critically acclaimed solo album The Gradual Progression was released in 2017 and his most recent record Contact is out now.

We recently interviewed Greg on video chat to discuss Contact, his composing process, and his most recent endeavor, Studio Te.

Can you walk us through the compositional and recording process for Contact? How did you write the pieces and how did they get recorded?

The way they were written initially is similar to how I wrote The Gradual Progression: creating these kinds of worlds of sound and exploring different relationships between the sounds, and the way that they can be activated with gestures on the drum set, and then using those gestures to explore the sound world. And that's how the composition starts to take form and shape.

In a way it always feels to me, when I'm writing music, that the pieces form from the center out: like from a seed into a flowering plant. The process doesn't feel linear to me.

It was like a reprocessing of creative ideas through another person's creativity.

In that way it's a similar creative process to The Gradual Progression. A lot of the pieces on Contact I started putting together and writing either right after I finished recording The Gradual Progression, or -- in some cases -- even before.

But the major difference between the two records is working with Randall Dunn who produced Contact and did all the engineering in the studio, and for all but one of the tracks and we approached it as a collaborative project.

The way we would mic things, or the way we would tune drums or the way we would process some of the sound, uh, that really changed from piece to piece. And that's also how we ended up with there being these pieces that are fully acoustic: just based on the way that we set things up.

For example, sometimes Randall would suggest running the digital output of Sensory through a Leslie speaker. And doing these kinds of things really obviously affected the sound of the record, but also affected the pieces themselves. It was like a reprocessing of creative ideas through another person's creativity.

A photo of Greg Fox
(Credit: Ebru Yildiz)

How do you think about your acoustic sound world? When you listen to the first track of Contact, Vedana, I was so struck by the expansive world I was entering. It doesn't sound like a drum set.

Yes, that first track is all acoustic. The Gradual Progression was the first time I'd ever recorded anything with Sensory. And so the focus of that record was Sensory Percussion, in a way. And for this record [Contact] I was using Sensory a lot, but I wanted the focus to be the drums.

It's almost like Sensory Percussion brought together all of the stuff I was doing over the years as a solo performer

Randall is an incredible producer and engineer and we spent a lot of time thinking about the tuning of the drums, the size of the drums, what kind of sticks I'd use, how hard I was going to hit. We really thought about things from a material point of view way more than I did the first time around. And I think that's what you're hearing really.

And to contrast that: the piece, Paresthesia, appears to not have any acoustic drums, I could be wrong about that, but it certainly feels like a departure from the pieces on The Gradual Progression, as well as most tracks on Contact. Can you tell us how that was recorded?

I like that there is some ambiguity as to whether or not there are drums on there if there aren't, but you're right, there aren't any drums.

Paresthesia was the one that I recorded in my studio and it's all modular synthesis.

It's almost like Sensory Percussion brought together all of the stuff I was doing over the years as a solo performer: electronic sound and drumming. I had different monikers for both of those.

But that piece is all modular. One night I was just patching and something that I really liked started to happen and so I just pressed record. I was really struck by the melody of it: it feels improvised, but it's being mediated through cables.

It is improvised: the patch itself is an improvisation, but compared to the immediacy of hitting a drum with something. I think you could draw parallels between patching and drumming, ultimately it's about committing to something, but with the drum it happens so quickly that it's not as much of a conscious thought.

I absolutely love the blend of electronics and acoustic sound on this entire album, and especially on the piece From the Cessation of What, what are the electronic sounds derived from on that piece?

Those are a bunch of different audio recordings. There's samples of bones being crunched, then there's sounds of a grand piano and a guitar. The guitar chord is just the same sample being repitched. And there are a couple of others, but those are the main sounds, all controlled by Sensory.

From the Cessation of What

And I love the transition in that piece. It's remarkable. What inspired that musical journey?

Often the way I write music is I start with one sound and then I start adding. I'll put sounds next to each other and maybe give it some behavior: some attributes, some movement, and then just listen to the way the two sounds are interacting and contrasting.

Then once I feel good about that, I'll add more. So I move that way: piece-by-piece, adding these sounds and then affecting their behavior and then look back at the whole picture.

I start that way without the idea of how the drums will activate them at all. And then once I've got the sound world, I sit at the drums and I explore the world.

Another metaphor I used when I was talking about The Gradual Progression is that I'm looking through a telescope at a planet, and then I get on the rocket ship and go there and actually look around.

And that's what drumming with Sensory is: exploring. That's when the compositional choices, so to speak, get made. Because that's the difference between looking at something from afar and actually being in it.

Greg performing an excerpt of The Gradual Progression

What's the significance of the album title?

My thinking when I named the record Contact was two things: the way that our mind and body are in contact with each other, and then the way that mind body makes contact with the outside world.

Contact is made and then a sensation occurs. And that sensation is where we experience existence; it's where we experience every aspect of the outside world: contact and then sensation. And then we decide that we either want more of it or less of it. And that moment is where we start generating aversion if we want less of it, or craving and clinging if we want more of it. And then that's where the wheel really starts to spin.

Can you tell us about the album cover?

Contact is made and then a sensation occurs. And that sensation is where we experience existence; it's where we experience every aspect of the outside world

The album art was done by a wonderful artist named Emma Coleman, who I first met at Printed Matter Art Book Fair. I immediately completely fell in love with her work and her style: gestures, color choices, as well as the content and the sensibility behind her work. And as it turned out we had some mutual friends. We met at a party and I immediately was like “I would really love to have you do the album art” and she graciously agreed.

We talked a little bit and I mostly just said that I trusted her and whatever she made, I would really love. I didn't want to give too much input, but she asked me if there were any images that mattered to me in any way. And I sent a couple of them to her and one of them was the calendar image of the Vishwarupa, which I first saw when I was reading the Bhagavad Gita, and the Vishwarupa resonated with me strongly with me: this depiction of infinity, it's so powerful to me.

A photo of a statue of Vishwarupa
Statue of Vishwarupa [credit Steve Jurvetson - https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/378256/]

And the first image sent back was the album cover. And I got that feeling that: this has existed all along, but I'm just getting to see it now.

The album of Contact by Greg Fox

And so that was like, “well, okay, we're done here!”

I couldn't be happier with the image. I'm as excited about that image as I am about the sound of the record.

Yes, I trusted my label, RVNG, and the artists to animate Emma's work. I think it's really cool, but I don't feel like I had anything to do with making that video, other than my music is the score.

Can you tell us a little bit about Studio Te?

Yeah, I started putting the studio together about two years ago, just as my own space to track drums and be able to do remote session work here or there.

But after I got my coaching certification and started seeing clients in that capacity the idea started to arise of having a dedicated workspace. The idea started to arise of turning my bedroom studio into a professional, public-facing, hirable studio. And the way to make that happen mainly would be removing my personal effects from that space: like bed, clothing, et cetera.

And, kind of serendipitously, in February I found out that the person occupying the space directly next to mine was leaving, and so everything was lining up very excitingly. So I crunched the numbers and I found out that with the touring that I had coming up, I'd be able to float rent long enough until I opened the space.

Then, through talking to a bunch of friends, the idea of doing a Kickstarter was suggested to try to raise some money: to do some of the upgrading I wanted to do to the space and equipment in order to be more accommodating to a wider range of clientele.

So that all was falling into place and then the unexpected pandemic occurred, which changed things a bit.

But I'm still very much going through with the plan. I did the Kickstarter and it was successful.

A photo of Greg Fox
"(Credit: Ebru Yildiz)"

Congratulations on that!

Thank you. It's a good start on things. The idea of Studio Te is to be a tracking studio that has my kind of flavor as far as the aesthetic layout of the space, with a lot of really nice gear and instruments for people to use, and a powerful modular synthesizer situation, as well.

So it will obviously be ideal for drum tracking, but really any kind of tracking can work. And with an affordable day rate, the idea is for it to be an inclusive space. So that folks who want to make a record and spend a little more time can do that.

And the other thing is: expanding my teaching practice to do more teaching work here, doing workshops here, and having other people come and teach here. So it's obviously primarily dedicated to recording music, but versatile beyond that.

Greg's setup:

  • Sensory Percussion: 4 Sensors
  • Ableton
  • Macbook pro
  • 4 sensors
  • Roland Octacapture (for touring)
  • Apollo 8 Pre for studio
  • Dream Cymbals
  • Evans Heads
  • Promark Sticks
  • Premier Gen-X toms and kick
  • Yamaha Musashi snare
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