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Recycled Percussion
Refuge of Refuse

Words by Stan Hall
Photos by Michael DeFilippi

Drumming does not necessarily involve drums. All it requires is a playing surface — be it a drumhead, your little brother’s head, or a paint bucket. Case in point: Recycled Percussion, three drummers and a DJ from New Hampshire whose exuberant assault on buckets, barrels, and even the kitchen sink shows just how much fun drumming can be.

In contrast to other unconventional percussion groups (Stomp and Blue Man Group come to mind), Recycled Percussion takes a decidedly different track. Where Stomp is a theatrical endeavor utilizing everyday objects, and the blue boys take a Vegas-type entertainment approach, Recycled Percussion’s performance is what happens when rock drumming crashes head-first into a junk yard at full speed.

 Recycled Percussion is the brainchild of Justin Spencer, who drew inspiration from Larry Wright, regarded by many as the guy who started the whole bucket scene out on the streets and subway stations of New York. Although drumming on buckets is no longer a novelty, Recycled Percussion is the first group to take it from its street roots and bring it indoors, mixing its gritty appeal with a sense of humor and gravity-defying athleticism worthy of the X Games. This is full-contact concussion percussion: they hit buckets, they hit barrels, they hit sheet metal, they even hit themselves. Broken bones and aching joints are witnesses to how hard they rock their junk, their playing revealing a personal disdain for injury that borders on the heroically senseless.

Spencer’s credo is “rocking is what you should be doing,” and he and the other members of Recycled Percussion, Greg Kassapis and Ryan Vezina, do just that. Constantly on the road, they have opened for Godsmack and performed at NBA and NFL half-time shows while maintaining their reputation as one of the most popular acts on the college circuit today, as attested by their recent DVD, Live At Allegheny. Crowds go crazy for their nonstop slamfest, and once you’ve seen them perform, it’s easy to see why.

Drumhead: What was the impetus behind creating Recycled Percussion?
Justin Spencer: It all started out from a high school talent show in Goffstown, New Hampshire, and it grew from there. I started playing drums when I was 2, and I kind of grew up playing solos. I was doing solo stars when I was in my school band when I was like 9 years old, things like that. I was doing drum solos at talent shows, but it never really cut the bacon because it wasn’t original enough.

I took a trip to New York City and saw Larry Wright, who was really the influence for my playing buckets. This is before Stomp and Blue Man Group. He’s the pioneer, in my mind. I think he gets no credit, but he’s the guy that really brought the urban bucket-playing mainstream. Michael Jackson had him in some videos and Levi’s did a couple commercials with him.

So I started playing one bucket and then I decided to take that concept and add more buckets to it. The first few years it was just a lot of experimenting and fooling around, but the last five years has been ridiculous. Now we’re one of the busiest percussion groups on the planet. Some people make comparisons to Stomp and things like that, but they’re not even close to what we’re doing. Our stuff has far more intense drumming than you’d find with Stomp or Blue Man Group.

DH: If you were going to explain to somebody the difference between the two, what would be the emphasis?
JS: Stomp is really a theatrical dance show with heavy percussive elements. People see the Trash Kat drum on our stage and think the two are similar, but we aren’t a dance show. This is a rock show with intense drumming.
Stomp’s really cool and super talented, but drumming-wise, it’d be really difficult for them to hang with us. Physically the three of us are doing some really cool stuff. Our training process is pretty rigorous; it has to be in order to help us when it comes to show time. Tonight we’re going to do a 60-minute show with no break all the way through — that’s a lot of drumming. And the objects we play have no give, so you have to have a lot of arm endurance.

DH: Do you think you’re going to be facing carpal tunnel anytime soon?
JS: Yeah, absolutely, although as drummers we do have stretches and warm-up techniques that we do. Two summers ago we had a residency in California for a month, and we trained a lot at the gym. We were doing two shows a day, six days a week, plus the gym twice a day, and I had to fly home to see a specialist because my arms were so messed up that I couldn’t really play anymore. We really disregard our bodies; we break ankles and bust our fingers all the time — we just go crazy.

DH: You do a lot of unusual stuff in the show, one of which is playing on ladders. Whose idea was that?
JS: That was my idea. Actually I wrote most of the show. A lot of ideas come from just walking around looking at stuff or whatever, and when I see something I think is really cool I try to make a show out of it.

DH: I’m assuming the show constantly evolves.
JS: Absolutely, it changes by the day — even when we’re on tour. We’re right in the middle of a tour right now and it evolves from show to show. Two days ago we were playing for 80,000 people, and today we’re gonna play for 350. This is a much more intimate atmosphere, so tonight will be one of the best nights for good drumming. When we’re in a bigger room, it’s more of a rock show, but with a smaller room like this we can really emphasize the drumming. We adapt to the setting and that will influence how we change the show.

DH: It looks like you’reusing a bunch of Factory Metal percussion.
JS: Yeah, we just started that. The Factory Metal stuff is new to this tour, and we’re still experimenting with it. For a while we were using some different kind of metal, but we like the sound of the Factory Metal stuff, and it fits the recycling theme. We’re always changing stuff. Last time we had a huge drum set, but we’re not using it on this tour.

DH: You’re just using buckets?
JS: Yep. And some power tools — we use grinders and jackhammers, plus there’s a section where we play a Trash Kat and other stuff… but mainly I would say this is more athleticism. These guys are all athletes; they’re all carrying three percent body fat and that kind of thing. These guys train hard to be able to do this. When you’re climbing up ladders playing rudiments and jumping off backwards from six or seven feet in the air, it’s tough stuff.

DH: What happens when you mess yourself up?
JS: You keep playing. We actually had an instance a few months ago where Greg and I both broke our ankles in the exact same part of the show within 10 seconds of each other. He broke his ankle when he went to throw me something in the air and messed up, and then I did the exact same thing, same break. We were both playing the show in casts for two months. We had to play a show the next day in New York. We’ve never missed a show for any injuries.

 


 

DH: Why did you decide to take the drums out of this one?

JS: We just wanted to kind of bring it back to the roots.

DH: Traveling light?
JS: No, not really. At this point, drum kits aren’t really going to add much to it. [laughs] But we just decided to bring it back to the roots a little. We wanted to go right back to the regular old Recycled Percussion. We incorporated the drum kit for one tour and had a great time with it, and we’ll probably bring it back at some point. But before that, we’re gonna do some other new things like do a five-minute segment playing cocktail kits in the front of the stage.

DH: Because you’re playing on such hard surfaces for the most part, except for the buckets, do you have to develop any kind of special technique to keep yourself from getting shocked to death?
JS: Everything’s certainly different as far as how you play. Some things you’re playing with your arms, sometimes you have to hold the stick way down, with the very end of the stick in the palm of your hand. You’re constantly changing while you’re playing, you’re changing where your hands are, how hard you squeeze. It’s a lot different than playing on a drum. Playing a drum is a lot easier on your arms. If somebody tried to maintain the speed that you’ll see at our show tonight, they just couldn’t do it. I’ve spent 10 years concentrating on this thing, and I can tell you: The arms just get tired. A lot of drummers that play fast drums are all fingers. The Mike Manginis, all those guys that I rival with for the fastest drummer, they’re not really using the technique we use.

DH: Are you doing mostly single strokes on this stuff?
JS: I’d say it’s 95 percent single strokes but with a lot of crazy accents, a lot of movement, a lot of crossovers, and that’s really hard to execute on these things.

DH: Do you have any rudimental background for the crossovers and other stuff?
JS: We did marching bands and jazz bands and things like that, and we’ve had some great drummers along the way that have influenced us, but most of this is self-taught. The solo I’ll do tonight, nobody else is in the world is doing right now. I’ll do a solo tonight that I came up with without any influence or inspiration from anybody, and I don’t think there’s anybody who can copy it — I really don’t. I think most drummers would look at it and say, “What the hell is that?” [laughs]
Our show is full of moves we invented. We didn’t see someone and say, “That’s cool, let’s add on that.” We’re doing some stuff that’s totally original from the ground up, and I’m pretty educated with drums. I admire so many great drummers, and because of that I’ve decided to develop my own style. I didn’t really want to copy them; I wanted them to have their thing and I wanted to have mine. Because this is so different, it’s easier to develop your own style. If you had a drum kit, it’d be harder to come up with something original.

DH: Since you also play drum set, do you ever miss not playing the bottom end with your feet?
JS: Yes. Once we go home, we have this huge warehouse that’s full of thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of drums — just an Everest of drums, kit after kit after kit. When I play that, I go, “Wow, I’ve got a foot now!” [laughs] And you’d be amazed how fast you can get around the toms after playing on this stuff. It’s also amazing how many heads you break, too! [laughs] It’s like, okay, I guess you have to play like that. It was actually a brainteaser to go back to the drum kit after playing on the buckets and metal stuff.


 

DH: Have you had a DJ from the get-go?
JS: No, we added the DJ concept about three years ago. We wanted to have a melody to it, so the DJ in this particular situation is far more different than an average DJ. He acts more as a guitar player, basically, by playing melody and that kind of stuff, and that’s really cool.

DH: Currently you’ve got three drummers up front and the DJ in the back. Did you start with three drummers, or was it just you by yourself?
JS: We started with four drummers. And then we took out a drummer and added a DJ.

DH: Why? Was it too much stuff going on?
JS: There were a couple of reasons. First of all, from the audience’s perspective, four seemed to be too many guys for them to relate to. With three guys, people in the audience tend to see each guy as an individual, and they can focus in on the one they relate to the best. With four, the audience generally doesn’t do that: They just see all of them as one big group, not as individuals.

The other reason was we just wanted to add something different. The DJ gives us a melodic structure to play against, which I think makes what we do even more effective.

The next thing we’re going to do is add an orchestra. It’ll be three or four drummers on buckets with a five- or six-person string section and a horn section. We want to add some really cool orchestrated melodies to what we’re doing, make it really, really sexy, and take it back to classical roots while adding an urban-like rock feel to it.

DH: So the core of this thing is always going to be the buckets?
JS: Always the buckets, but we’re going add new things to it, some string players over here, a tuba player over there, whatever. That’s the beauty of it — we can add anything we want to the show.