Interview by Charlie Weinmann
Photos by Robbie Jeffers
Abe Rounds has been surrounded by music his entire life. Growing up in Australia, he was exposed to world-class musicians at a young age; his father works as session musician, and Abe started playing music around the same time he started talking. He moved to Boston when he was 20 years old to attend Berklee College of Music. Today, Abe resides in Los Angeles where he plays with some of the most cutting edge and progressive artists of our time. He recently returned from touring with Andrew Bird,and Madison Cunningham, along with several other great artists. Abe can be heard on all but one track of Cunningham’s most recent album, Who Are You Now, and played on one track on Andrew Bird’s My Finest Work Yet (Ted Poor being the other drummer on those two albums).
As busy as Abe is playing sessions, touring and gigging around town, he’s found time to start his own band with his friend, Jake Sherman – they are Jake and Abe. Their sound is tasty, groovy, with a funny lyrical style that address everyday life. Together they have released three songs with the plan to release more one by one.
Abe is a genuinely kind fellow. You come to understand this just by being in the same room as him. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and despite the amount of talent he has for playing the drums, he’s not a gear nut and spends more time practicing the bass than he does the drums. He’s well-rounded as a musician and his openness to learning and playing with anyone who’s “a good hang” is part of what makes up his good-natured personality. What follows is a conversation with Abe Rounds, who says he’s thankful that this past year has been the busiest year of his life.
I know you went to Berklee College of Music, how was your experience over all?
I had an up and down experience. Ultimately there were so much more advantages than disadvantages. The most important thing was all the people I met from all around the world. I did the jazz program – I got deep into it for a second and it got really dark on that whole jazz life, and you know…I’m almost more into it now than when I had left. It was a dark period for me. I’ve been playing drums since I was one or two, so I came into it in a natural state, and then having to go to college and suddenly analyze everything – ‘why my hands move like this,’ and ‘why music is like this…’
It didn’t feel natural.
No, having to analyze all that stuff…there’s this little jaded part of me that has overanalyzed music so much, and I’m trying to break out of that more and more. But I learned so much about technique and harmony and learning to fend for myself.
When did you come to L.A. after Berklee?
I moved to L.A. about four years ago. It’s flown by. I didn’t really like it at first. It took me a while to find my groove, and people that I felt like I wanted to be around, who loved me and I loved them back; a real genuine thing, you know? But it could be like that moving anywhere for the first time. But it’s especially hard here, I think.
How did you go about starting to play when you got to L.A.?
I was very fortunate to have met Meshell Ndegeocello in college, whos band I play in currently. She is my mentor and one of my closest friends. I met her through the great Terri Lyne Carrington, who I am very grateful to have studied with and is a direct influence on my musical journey.
Meshell came and did a three-day masterclass at Berklee and I was lucky enough to be chosen to play in an ensemble for the masterclass. We learned a bunch of her music and she came and rehearsed with us and we did a set. That’s how I met her. It changed my life.
She asked me to join the band. So when I left Berklee, I had work, and I moved out to L.A. because the rest of Meshell’s band was here. So I moved here with a gig, which is really, you know, that’s very special and lucky.
How did you come to work with Madison Cunningham?
Madi, I met her going to see her play. I saw Alan [Hampton] and Tyler [Chester] were playing at the Mollusk Surf Shop in Silver Lake with Madi. I went there and she just blew my mind. I thought, ‘this is amazing.’ Such a gift, and an innate ability with song and melody and harmony and rhythm. It’s just all there. And I had been friends with Tyler for a bit and he was her producer and brought me in on a couple gigs and we started playing more and more. And then we made a record last year at Sonic Ranch.
How much time did you spend at Sonic Ranch?
We were there for one week. It was an amazing week. It’s one of the biggest residential studios in the world, where you just go and live. It’s two hours outside of El Paso on the boarder of Mexico.
So yeah, we were there for a week and we lived in the house together and cooked outside, and there’s this amazing studio right there. And we did it all to tape with this amazing engineer called David Boucher. He’s incredible, he’s done all of Randy Newman’s records, Andrew Bird’s records, but he’s the main Disney guy, so he’s recorded the “Frozen” soundtrack, “Cocoa,” so he’s a beast. He’s the best engineer who I’ve ever worked with. Until you get into a studio with an engineer who really cares and really influences the sound of the band…how he affects the sound of the drums…he’s basically part of the band. Especially when we’re recording to tape and you can’t really go back and change anything. He really cares about how it all sounds when it goes down. I remember there was a point where I was playing and the drums sounded distorted, and he was like ‘yeah that’s what I’m going for.’
How were you connected with Andrew Bird? What have you worked on together?
I had never actually met Andrew, but he reached out to me one day by email to sub on a show in Mexico City. He said he had seen me play with My Brightest Diamond. So I did the show, and had to learn his set in not very much time. I don’t think we rehearsed. I met him in Mexico and we did the gig, and it went pretty good! He’s definitely a character and his songwriting is incredible; very eccentric. It’s kind of like boarding a moving train, playing with him. He does all those crazy loops and stuff. He sets them up and you play along with them live. It’s a fun gig in the way that every night’s different. Nothing is metronomic, it’s really elastic. The great Alan Hampton plays the bass which makes everything easy.
As a multi-instrumentalist, which interest captures most of your attention?
I play bass a lot, because my father is a bass player. I’ve been playing it more and more…I started a band with my friend Jake Sherman, we’re called Jake and Abe. So that’s really been my main creative focus, is finishing this record with my friend Jake.
What’s been the process for making that record?
We write together, it’s basically Jake and I singing. Jake mainly plays the keys and I mainly play the drums and we switch off playing the bass, and I play the guitar, and he plays guitar and we over-dub a lot of things…we basically made the record ourselves. Jake is an amazing multi-instrumentalist, too. We just write funny little songs together and record it. It was a bit of a joke at first but then the songs started getting serious. We met on the Meshell Ndegeocello gig. He actually went to Berklee too but I never knew him. He came and played organ one time with Meshell and we got along, because I never play music with people my age, I always play with people who are older. So we made a band and it’s been fun.
We record mostly at my house but we’ve done stuff with Justin Stanley at Stella Sound Studios & Pete Min at Lucy’s Meat Market, which is where Meshell has made a lot of her records. Andrew Bird has recorded there, Vulfpeck has recorded there…but mainly these songs have been recorded by us at my house. It’s expensive, studio time.
We just spent a week in Joshua Tree recording new songs. My friend Stella Mozgawa [drummer in WarPaint] just bought a house up there and built a studio. So I went out there with Jake and we recorded three or four new songs.
How often do you gig as a bass player?
Not often. I did my first real bass gig with Meshell at a jazz festival in New York. I had to play bass with Deantoni Parks, which was great. He’s a good friend of mine and obviously he’s just the best. He’s at the forefront of creativity as a musician, not just on the drum set. For the amount of chops going on in the world and busy technique, that is a bit overwhelming for me…it can seem like that comes first and the music comes last. A lot of these people are super famous online for just chopping out. It’s not something you could ever record and harness something musical, really. Deantoni takes all of that but it’s so natural and it’s not premeditated. Everything is so raw, but at the same time it makes you dance, and it’s musical. He’s the best. Being able to play bass with someone like that, it was life changing. His beat is so unique. And it informs your drumming, too.
And you also played with James Gadson?
Yes we played double drums together and I have been very fortunate to spend some time with him. He is such a generous and humble human with an endearing nature. His beat is iconic & truly one of a kind.
What’s been your overall impression of L.A. since you’ve lived here?
There are so many friendly and talented musicians here. It’s a real community. I like it here in L.A. as opposed to New York. I really like songs, and making records and sounds. It sounds really lame but I’m just no longer excited about drums like I was as a teenager. I look at them as a tool for making music better.
Do you have much of a preference when it comes to choosing which drums you play?
I’m not super picky when I’m on the road. When I’m on the road with Meshell I just use backline stuff. I don’t carry cymbals. But when I get in the studio, yeah, for sure. I lean more towards vintage and old drums. But at the end of the day if you come up with a great beat, even if the sound is shitty, it can be kind of cool. If it’s recorded well. The amount of times you have to make what’s there work….sometimes you can have all of this gear, and it’s still not happening…there’s something beautiful about limitation, I think.
I have one drum set. I just have it at home.
How long have you had that kit?
I got it a year ago from Revival in Portland. It’s an old Trixon kit.
Is that what you played with Joey Dosik at the Troubadour?
Yeah. That was a fun show. James [Gadson] was there. James has an incredible rhythm. It’s this slinky feel. You just set up a microphone and it’s amazing – golden. When you hear it in the room, it’s kind of weird, like when it’s being tracked, it’s like a voodoo thing. It feels like it’s kind of racing in a way. Like his body is racing but his beat is really back. It feels kind of janky, and then when you go and listen to it in the music on the playback, it just sits in there somehow.
What was your first big gig?
Well, I was very lucky growing up. My father is a great bass player and musician, and very well respected in Sydney, Australia. I grew up around a lot of great musicians and got a lot of really important musical lessons ingrained in me at an early age. I’ve always played around really great musicians.
I guess my big big break was meeting Meshell. I grew up listening to her music, so I already knew all of her music, and it was very serendipitous in a way. It’s the reason I’m here talking with you, playing with Madi, any of these people – I owe it to her and my parents, that’s it.
What do you love about playing with Meshell?
The sense of freedom in the music. She’s never ever told me what to play, and I’ve been in her band for five years now. It’s all about making it your own. She definitely provides direction but she’s very ethereal. She’s taught me about friendship and family and how those things affect music; she’s taught me about song and sonics, and not to be afraid to be informed by your intuition, and go for it and make weird musical decisions when you feel it. … She’s taught me to take a compliment like a critique and a critique like a compliment.
Chris Bruce [guitar in Meshell’s band] is a big mentor of mine. He’s turned me on to so much music and I’ve learned so much through him. He introduced me to My Brightest Diamond. I played with Seal for a year and a half and that happened through Chris, because he’d played with Seal forever. Chris just moved to New York and gave me his old car…it’s just very lucky to have that person in my life.
You’re 27. Do you have any benchmarks you’re working towards, or anything you’d like to have accomplished by a certain time?
By the time I’m in my mid-thirties I’d love to be supporting myself, my life and my family, through music that I write myself. That’d be amazing. And then finding time to play with people who I love. And learning the importance of saying “no”, sometimes. I’m excited for the music I’ve made with Jake. I’d like to make my own solo record…I have a lot of shells of ideas, I’m just not very good at finishing things, with my own stuff. That’s why I like collaborating, because we can keep each other on it and get things finished.
I’d love to be playing my own music, but at the end of the day you have to pay your rent. And don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be doing it with people that I admire and that I love. You have to take all of the things that come your way.
Your singing sounds great on the Jake and Abe songs, is that something that you enjoy doing?
Thanks! Yeah, it’s something I’ve been working on. But it’s nice to be recognized now…I’m getting calls: ‘can you sing this, as well.’ It’s appealing to me because it’s more of a challenge. I’ve been playing drums all of my life, 27 years basically.
What drummers are you excited about right now?
The drummers that excite me are Brian Blade, Deantoni Parks, this guy named Budgie, from Siouxsie and the Banshees, I think he’s a genius. Carla Azar, she’s an amazing drummer. She plays in her band, Autoluxe. …Jay Bellerose…he’s the shit. … Ted Poor, this guy named Earl Harvin…Earl Harvin is up there with Jay Bellerose when it comes to most recorded drummers. He has a really iconic beat. He was the drummer previously with Meshell; he plays on the Come To Me record. I’ve learned a lot just by learning his parts. At the end of the day you’re just a product of the influences that surround you.
Do you set time aside to practice?
I’ll be honest, I don’t anymore. I spend my time playing the bass or learning songs on keys. I’m not shedding techniques or anything like that, but I’m learning tons of songs. I’m playing [drums] a lot, still, but I definitely feel like I need to hit the shed soon. I’d really like to go in there and fine tune and push myself a little more. I feel a little stuck at the moment, I do. I feel like I have a thing that I do, but I want to learn more stuff. And sometimes it’s just listening to more music. I’m trying to listen to as much different music as I can. That’s definitely a common thread with people who I admire and love, they listen to all kinds of music. It’s so important not to pigeon-hole your listening. And mental practice, that’s a big thing too.
What’s an example of a way you practice mentally?
Thinking of melodies to play on the drums…or just listening to a song and isolating the drums in your brain and thinking ‘how would I play that?’ And practicing slow…and playing along to records. There are some really cool records that have no drums on them, like there’s a Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Stephen Scott trio record, and there are no drums on it, and it’s great to play along with, and really try and make it groove. I mean it’s grooving so hard, but trying to make yourself slide in there.
Are you someone who learned a certain playing technique and stuck with that?
No. I did take a Moeller technique class at Berklee. But my thing is very homegrown at the moment.
There was a point where I went deep on the Allen Dawson ritual and I transcribed Elvin…I did all that, and I should go back and do it again now having a more advanced musical understanding. And I have so much further to go, but it would be fun to go back to that now, after like four or five years.
What are some recent projects you’re involved with?
I co-produced a record with my friend Sarah Walk and amazing producer, Leo Abrahams. That will probably come out next year.
I recorded some music with Blake Mills and Pino Palladino at Sound City which was a really fun time. We did it as a trio. I don’t know if that’s going to come out… There was a lot of room for interpretation but there was also music that was concrete and felt great already, so I did my best to navigate around that
I’ve been working with Tony Berg a bit, and Naia Izumi on his new record.
I’ve recently been working on these movie sessions for this move that’s coming out called Birds of Prey. The score is a lot of intense, loud drums. It’s like Rage Against the Machine meets Led Zeppelin Bonham stuff, just like beating on the cymbal. I’m beating my hands up! It feels like old-school recording, like it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ridged union vibes. Like, you’re not allowed to touch the drum set before 11 a.m. And every hour there’s a ten-minute break. You have to clock your time.
Had you worked like that before?
Never. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I mean I’m not the go-to smashing rock drummer guy, but I tried and it was fun.
If you’re not actively practicing the drums often, how would you describe the way you are progressing right now?
I feel like I’ve grown in a different way. Yeah I’ve not been in the shed playing my rudiments to a metronome, but I’ve gotten better at playing live and playing a room and playing songs. And playing with other people, which you can’t practice by yourself. But I’d probably fail a Berklee ratings test [laughs]. But I can hold a beat down!
What’s been most rewarding for you with starting to put out this new Jake and Abe music?
It’s giving me something creative of my own. It’s a nice little outlet for my own creations, and with a good friend of mine. We have fun making music together. It’s a nice creative challenge as well. And it’s cool to take all the experiences you’re having in your life and just make songs about it. Also it’s a different feeling playing your own show, and I’ve been singing a lot, which has been a huge challenge for me. I’m enjoying the new challenges and having this type of nerve before playing a show.
“Stole My Joy” is out now. Listen to it here.