As a guitar player, one thing I envy about the drums is the seemingly endless creativity drummers have in carving out their sound.
Even the straightest of styles has room for moments of surprise. Maureen Tucker (The Velvet Underground) was as unconventional and off-kilter a drummer as she was simplistic.
Meg White (The White Stripes) hit listeners with a similar, deceptively simple, idiosyncratic backbeat. The counter-intuitiveness of Meg’s style was the crème to Jack Whites’ guitar playing, and no less integral to the band’s sound and success.
If complex polyrhythmic beats are your thing, crank some Prince and the Revolution and behold Sheila E. The “Queen of Percussion” has been one of funk’s preeminent, in-demand drummers for decades.
Despite the breadth of their talent and contribution, Tucker, White, and Escovedo are in rare company; 6 women made Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time list. If women are underrepresented in music in general, they’re something approaching unicorn status behind the drums.
The St. John’s music scene is witnessing a zenith of women-led projects, thanks in part to feminist initiatives like Band Off and Girls Rock NL. To say it’s exciting to watch a new generation of musicians push traditional boundaries is an understatement.
I asked drummer Allison Graves (BBQT, XBF) and drummer/percussionist Whitney Rowe (Hear/Say, Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra) about the changing scene, their experience as women within it, and what advice they have for other aspiring female drummers.
When asked about their initial interest in the drums, Rowe credits her older brother. “He started taking lessons in junior high. I really looked up to him, so of course I followed suit. Turns out I had more of a knack for it!”
Graves started the band XBF with good friends Aley Waterman and Amery Sanford. “We picked up instruments we’d never played to counter the lack of all-female bands in St. John’s at that time.”
While gender isn’t something Graves thinks about much when playing, she’s excited about the current influx of women on the scene.
“A lot of my friends have started playing music and I’m excited about how it’s altered energy at shows. I certainly observe shows differently than I did before drumming, and if more people who identify as female feel that way, it can only be positive.”
Rowe agrees: “Being a woman doesn’t change what I bring to the table, but it may inspire other girls to get involved in the music community in Newfoundland.” Interestingly, Rowe notes that what looks like a lack of women, might be more a matter of optics.
“There aren’t a lot of female drummers in the public eye gigging downtown, but I have more female students than male students in my private studio every year, and the numbers are constantly growing. Many of those students simply enjoy learning new beats and styles of music, and are happy to jam. Perhaps by the time they’re in high school, they’ll be ready to take the stage and show the world their amazing talent!”
Both women offer sage advice for other women and girls interested in playing drums. For Graves, the drums present leadership possibilities, and an effective way to stay engaged.
“Understanding and practicing these ideas is something that’s beneficial not only when playing music. It’s also therapeutic in all the obvious ways.” And with all the enthusiasm of the best kind of teacher, Rowe heartily proclaims, “find yourself a teacher and do it!”