Aaron Comess has been one of New York City’s most in-demand drummers for more than 20 years. A founding member of the Spin Doctors, he has also recorded with and played in the bands of Joan Osborne, James Maddock and Marc Cohn, to name a few. With several of these bands, he played the opening set at Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock before the legendary drummer died in 2012. Comess recently released his third CD of eclectic instrumental songs, Blues for Use, with his own trio, which includes guitarist Teddy Kumpel and bass player Richard Hammond. Following their sold-out show at the Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in May, the band will play there again on June 24th at 9 pm. Comess took time from his busy schedule to talk to ROLL about the new record, his musical journey, and share some of his memories of watching and playing with Levon Helm.
Tell me a bit about your musical history, when you started playing, where and what.
The first instrument I played was piano. I started piano lessons when I was five or six and I studied classical piano for three or four years. Then I took an interest in drums and at the age of nine, asked my parents for lessons. They found a great teacher at the local music store in Dallas, Texas — a guy named Jack Iden — and he was great. The first thing he taught me that first day was how to hold the sticks and he taught me how to hold traditional grip (which is why I hold traditional grip.) He immediately got me into reading music and learning rudiments but would not allow me to get a drum set for about three years. Even though I kicked and screamed the whole time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I was forced to learn just snare drum rudiments and reading. I just had a practice pad for about a year and then I got a snare drum. When I finally got a drum kit, I was about 11 and already had my hands kind of developed in a circuit sense. I was really lucky to have that sort of training.
I also had different teachers as I went through junior high and high school who taught me big band chart reading and I started getting into jazz. I was lucky that at the time in Dallas, there were really good music programs in the schools so I was doing symphonic orchestra and stage band. I went to a high school in Dallas called the Arts Magnet High School and it was kind of like LaGuardia High here in NY. Half the day was academics and the other half music. I got to play in the jazz combo as well as the big band at school every day. It was only a small group, and on top of that all my friends were jamming every night and all weekend and it was just a great environment to grow up in.
From there, I went to Berklee School of Music for a year in Boston, then moved back to Dallas for a year and just gigged around. I got a house with my friends and played a lot of blues gigs, jazz gigs, rock band performances, weddings, and then I finally decided to move to New York. My friend Roy Hargrove is a very well known jazz musician who I went to high school with and one night we were doing a gig and I told him that I wanted to move to New York and he had heard about The New School, which had just started a jazz program. So I went to NY, auditioned, checked it out and ended up moving here. I started playing around NY and met up with the guys in the Spin Doctors and have been in NY for 25 years — ever since!
And you do a great many things in addition to playing in the Spin Doctors!
Absolutely. I’ve always had a big interest in all kinds of music. When I was a kid, I always knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a professional musician –that was my goal. I always had an equal interest in musicians who were in bands and musicians that you saw on a lot of records. I was just as impressed with a guy like John Bonham in Led Zeppelin as I was with somebody like Steve Gadd. So when I moved up here, I figured I could go in a lot of different directions. Was I going to play jazz? Was I going to be in a band? Was I going to end up being a sideman? Obviously I made the decision to give the Spin Doctors a go and that worked out well and I’ve been lucky enough as well to get to do a lot of other work with other great musicians.
Do you still play piano? Do you write songs on piano?
I wish I had kept it up. I remember my uncle saying to me, you’re going to regret giving it up and I do. But I think piano is the best instrument to get musical education on early on because you can visualize music on piano, it makes a lot of sense. I do still play piano to a certain extent and I do write on piano occasionally, but I do most of my writing on guitar. All the songs that I’ve written for my group on these records have been written on guitar. Guitar is such a great instrument. You can just sit on the couch and pick it up and take it anywhere and and play it. I’ve always loved the guitar and guitar players. I never really took a lesson but I’ve had enough musical education on theory and stuff and after years and years of sitting around with a guitar in my room, I can play it ok.
Tell me about your solo records.
This is the third one under my name. The first one was with a great guitar player named Bill Dillon. Back in the ‘90s, I did a record with Marc Cohn and met Bill. He’s just an unusually creative, unique guitar player. So when I first decided that I wanted to do my own record, I thought of him immediately. I thought, this guy is so great, I’d love to hear how he would interpret these songs. So I called him up and he was into it. I also wanted to get Tony Levin on the record so I used Bill, who called Tony and hooked it up. Through Bill, I also met Roman Klun, who’s a studio engineer and mixed all my records. That first record, Catskill Cry, was recorded up in Woodstock. I didn’t do any live dates, I just put the record out and that’s it. This time, I wanted to have a band that I could play with regularly around NYC so it was pretty easy to come up with Rich and Teddy. I knew Teddy for years and he’s always been one of my favorite guitar players, I knew he’d be perfect. And Rich I knew because we played together all the together with so many different people, including Joan Osborne. I wanted to put a group together that I knew was going to work because we like the same kind of stuff. So we made Beautiful Mistake together. We had never done a gig but we made the record in a couple of days and we started to play once every month or two around NY, mostly at Rockwood. With this new record, a good amount of it we were able to get together playing gigs, so that was a nice thing this time around.
What’s different about this record?
We have gelled a lot more as a group. Even though we’ve all played together in different situations before and knew each other, the recording session for Beautiful Mistake was the first time the three of us ever played together. I did the demos in the fall and sent them to them. They came in totally prepared and we did it and it came out wonderful. But on this last record, Blues for Use, the main difference is that we had the opportunity to actually play some of these songs out together live before we got into the studio. So we were stronger in that regard. As far as the compositions, the writing was done by me on the acoustic guitar, my basic writing process. For the most part, with a couple of exceptions, I would compose on the guitar and once I felt like it sounded good, I’d go into the studio where I could make a demo and send it to those guys. They’d learn it, we’d get together and take it from there. So I really think that the short answer is that we’ve been playing together for three years and the group has gelled a lot on this record.
The songs are so interesting. What did you have in mind with these 12 tracks?
When I’m doing a recording, I try to allow all the songs to work together but also create different moods and colors, in writing in general and in performing as well and in the whole context of making a record. I was trying to come up with a set of songs that work well together, that are interesting to listen to, that take you to a lot of different places but at the same time all have the thread.
It’s amazing that you can convey so much narrative with instrumentals.
Instrumental music is tough. I think the fact that I’ve worked with so many singer/songwriters and I’ve been in a rock band for many years — a lot of the music I do is that kind of music — so I really respect melody and words and how that kind of a strength, how important that is to the song. I try to keep that same concept when I write original instrumental music. I don’t want to get self-indulgent, I don’t want to be fancy or I don’t feel like I have to be complicated harmonically or rhythmically. I just want something that tends to go more in a simple direction, have something that sticks to you kind of like a song, like a singer would sing a song. That’s how I like to write instrumental music.
I first met you at a Midnight Ramble, I think you were playing with Joan Osborne.
I played up there a lot, with Joan a couple of times, but I was also there with James Maddock, Chris Bergson, and Leslie Mendelson — what a great venue that was!
Did you get to know Levon?
I got to know him a little bit. Being up there so many times, I got to hang out with him after the shows in his kitchen and got to speak with him on a number of occasions. One of the biggest thrills of the whole thing was the last time I was up there, I got to play double drums with him and it was just incredible. An eye-opening, amazing experience! So I feel lucky to have done that. He’s just an inspiration to so many people and an amazing presence. So many people were directly touched by him because of the intimate setting he had up there at the barn, it was a great six or seven years of music up there. I got to learn so much by just standing behind him and watching him a few times.
What did you find most special about him as a musician?
He had such a presence, a way of leading the band. You could see that the whole band had their eyes on him. The way he would lead a band in just a subtle way was pretty impressive. There was such a positive vibe coming off him and the music was so good and alive and fun! and he just led the whole thing with his drumming. I think drummers are the unsung heroes in a lot of ways because they aren’t really considered the bandleader in most situations but in a lot of ways we are. The drummer is the one driving the ship and it’s important to be strong behind the drums and also important to put off a positive vibe and he was just the king of that as far as I’m concerned. Everything he did – the way he played, the way he looked, the way he treated his band, the way he looked at people when he was playing – he was just the best.
I know from being a sideman with a lot of people that if the person you’re working for is having a good time and giving you positive energy, everybody’s going to play better, as opposed to someone who’s kind of got their head down and unhappy all the time, or doesn’t like what everyone’s doing. That’s just going to bring everybody down and you’re never going to reach that point of greatness.
I understand that you have your own home studio. Is that where all these CDs are recorded?
Yes, I’ve had a recording studio, His House, for the last 15 years. It has been in Manhattan, but we’ve just moved out to Brooklyn, me and Roman Klun. We just got a new space right off the L train in Williamsburg and it’s a great place and I’m kind of excited about that. It’s been a great thing for me because I’ve been able to obviously do my own music there and also help produce a lot of other artists. People know they can come in if they need me for drums and I’m always set up. The latest Joan Osborne record that just came out (Love and Hate) we did most of it there. That record had been going for a while, Joan started it three or four years ago and we did a bunch of stuff up at Jack Petruzzelli’s house in the Poconos. Then we ended up doing that blues/soul record, the one that got the Grammy nomination, (Bring it on Home). We did that one in between so it pushed the Love and Hate project off for a little while.
What’s next for the Aaron Comess band?
We’re playing on Tuesday, June 24th at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC at 9 pm and that will probably be the last gig for a month or two because everyone gets super busy in the summer. I’ve had a lot of travel, a lot of Spin Doctors dates in the last couple of months and I just got back from Europe. I was in Germany for about six weeks doing a tour with a guy named Marius Westernhagen, who I work with over there. So it’s a busy summer but I’m looking forward to our gig on the 24th. Always love to play with those guys, the band just keeps getting better and better.
Featured image is the cover of Aaron’s new CD: Blues for Use
For more information on CDs and shows, visit:
The Rockwood Music Hall is at 196 Allen St. NYC 212 477 4155