As the drummer and founding member of Big Mean Sound Machine, Andrew Klein does more than keep the beat. He leads a group of musicians, often varying in size, nearly every weekend of the year through the polyrhythmic sounds of West African and South American influences peppered by staccato horns into an atmosphere of cosmic keyboards and darting guitar. Formed eight years ago at Ithaca College, the all-instrumental Big Mean Sound Machine has just issued Runnin’ for the Ghost, its fourth album. Klein spoke to us from his studio in New York City about the ever-changing lineup, the process of writing and rehearsing a large band, and the origin of the ensemble’s unique influences.
I see photos of the group and sometimes there are different numbers of members onstage than in press shots. What accounts for this?
To be honest, it’s changing every weekend. We market it as a ten-piece band. It’s never fewer than eight and rarely more than eleven. Over the past eight years, there has been somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 players in this band, which is really wild to think about. I and Angelo Peters, our bassist, are the two founding members. Angelo is also the one who recorded and produced the album.
So, how do you manage that?
Nobody’s a hired gun at this point. We really like to keep people involved for their personality, especially. The lineup has been really steady recently, but, even so, there are still some subs. Other than Angelo and me, pretty much everyone has an alternate (member) for their instrument or someone in the band to cover their part.
Is that an aspect of what makes Big Mean Sound Machine special—to have possible lineup changes from show to show- or would you prefer continuity?
Great question. It’s really a double-edged sword. It’s fascinating to play in a band that’s instrumental and, therefore, has so much of everyone’s personality present in the music. Given that, a slightly different lineup week-to-week means playing the music slightly differently each time we go through it. That said, from scheduling and chemistry perspectives, it’s challenging to have different lineups and personalities to draw on. We may be feeling comfortable with something, and then we’ll have a player positioned in a different spot that changes that. I’d say, generally, it’s been one of our strongest assets.
Does that make it hard to write and rehearse material?
We’re using analog instruments. We record everything with microphones. There is very little, if anything, that is a digitally programmed sound. We’re proud of that and adamant about keeping it that way. That said, we rarely ever rehearse, and we do about one-hundred dates a year. And, we don’t read music on stage. In fact, the way we compose and learn our music is primarily through computers. We have a binder and Google document of horn charts available as a resource. It comes in most usefully when we have a new member.
One thing that struck me was the hint of EDM within a framework of real instruments played by human beings. Is that part of the intent? To incorporate the feel of EDM?
There is some interesting stuff in the world of IDM: Intelligent Dance Music. I’m the worst person to ask about that. My influences are more analog and non-Western; West African; South American. IDM, as I understand it, is music created digitally that doesn’t adhere to the traditional form of electronic dance music- the 16-bar loop model. IDM is more about exploring the potential while not being confined to 4/4 rhythm or 16-bar loops. The reason I bring this up is because, also in a non-traditional sense, that is what we are trying to do- moving people but not limiting ourselves to something expected or anticipated.
Rhythm is certainly foundational in your music. Where does the influence of the rhythm come from?
I want to give you three names: Lucas Ashby. Tony Allen. Naeem Inayatullah. I’ll start with the last first. Naeem is an incredible gentleman and professor at Ithaca College, where most of the founding members of the band went for their undergraduate study. He is an incredibly avid and enthusiastic collector of music. He’s very into non-Western music. And, he’s more than happy to lend, trade and give out music from his ‘outer’ collection to anyone who is interested. Being Middle Eastern and a fan of African music, he turned me on to Tony and Afrobeat. When I told him I was a drummer and interested in funk, he asked if I’d heard of Tony Allen. The rest is history. Tony is finally getting his due recognition after far too long. He pretty much created this style of music. He is really interested in serving the rhythm; giving the music exactly what it needs and not taking too much from it.
Lucas is our percussionist. He was born in the States, but his mother is Brazilian. She is a famous soul singer from Brazil. His father plays in Paul Simon’s band, and played in Dizzy Gillespie’s band for a while. They met playing music together. So, Lucas, through having true artist parents and so many non-American influences, was set on a journey of rhythmic exploration not even slightly limited but, in particular, focused on many traditional Brazilian rhythms. That is something that sets our music apart from, at least, what would be considered to be traditional Afrobeat.
That’s one of the things I liked: the ability to pull from different threads of music to make it your own.
We’ve never considered ourselves to be traditional Afrobeat. We’re not interested in being a carbon-copy of a carbon-copy. We’re really into creating something new, that we can leave behind us as a legacy, and that sounds like us. Even though all four of our albums sound different, they all sound like us.