Drummer Sim Cain:
Life After Rollins
Perhaps it's easy to be a great drummer when you've got one of the coolest names in rock music. But the versatile Sim Cain has a lot more going for him than that -- he's intelligent and affable, qualities seemingly tailor-made for the wide range of musical styles and artists he works with. And he backs up his refreshing I'll-try-anything-once attitude with some tasteful chops.
Cain first surfaced in 1985 with Gone, the mind-blowing instrumental trio led by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn. In 1986, Cain and bassist Andrew Weiss left Gone to co-found Rollins Band with Henry Rollins. Cain played with a brutal but brainy style that was positively electrifying. While guitarist Chris Haskett and Weiss (and his successor Melvin Gibbs) were no slouches, Cain gave Rollins a run for his money as to who could be the most viscerally exciting presence on the stage.
It was a good long run -- a decade -- but when it ended a few years ago, Cain adapted brilliantly. Although it would have been easy to simply stay in the metal-fusion mold, Cain proved more imaginative than that. He's worked on an astonishingly wide variety of gigs, from a 1999 tour playing maximum R&B with the J. Geils Band to intimate club shows with East Village singer-songwriters David Poe and Barbara Brousal. Cain has lent his supreme shuffle to Eszter Balint's ethereal downtown country, blew live drum 'n' bass drumming with trumpeter Graham Haynes and hammered out alt-rock on an upcoming Evan Dando album.
This percussionistic polyglot has also landed a number of prestigious art gigs, like playing with downtown guitarist/composer Elliott Sharp's Terraplane, whose album comes out in September on Knitting Factory Works. Work with John Zorn and a just recorded dance piece with downtown guitarist Marc Ribot is also in the can. And look for Cain's co-production of David Poe's second Sony/550 album this winter.
Musician.com: You played in a very particular style with Rollins Band. When you left that, did you feel typecast?
Sim Cain: I've dealt with a little bit of that, in that I was excluded from certain gigs that I could have done, more than I was continually asked to play hard rock. I guess people get a very definite idea of what you do or something. And I don't know how they get that, because I have no idea what I do!
Musician.com: So how did you get past that?
Cain: Playing. Just keep playing. You just see it through.
Musician.com: Did you learn anything from playing with Rollins?
Cain: Henry was into the ritual of performance and that's something I participated in -- there was definitely a ritualistic, cathartic element to those shows. And I learned that a lot of music is about context: I wouldn't say we were a punk rock band but part of what made Rollins Band unique was that we used a lot of R&B gestures inside of that -- it was like Bernard Purdie playing with Black Sabbath [laughs].
Musician.com: What did you learn from playing with Gone?
Cain: The whole Black Flag/Gone vibe was inspirational in their absolutely driving desire -- they were willing to do anything to make music. On a work ethic level, it taught me a lot. I also developed some bad habits from that experience, though -- I ended up playing too hard. Ginn had a very monochromatic concept about beats and grooves -- there was not much dynamics, but in a very conscious way. It took a lot of the swing out of my playing and I had to redevelop the sense of pushing and pulling on the pulse. Swing is very important. On every one of my snare drums, I write with a little Sharpie, 'Shuffle,' to remind myself.
Musician.com: How do you keep up your energy on the more demanding tours?
Cain: I used to be much more homeopathic in my approach. But now my rule is, when you start to feel bad, you take it easy -- not at the gig, but lifestyle-wise.
Musician.com: Do you warm up before shows
Cain: It depends. If it's one of the more aerobic gigs, I have to do fairly extensive stretching otherwise I'll develop problems really fast. So it's a lot of stretching back my hands and wrists, bending over and hanging.
Musician.com: It sounds like a sport..
Cain: One of the things I really dug about playing with Rollins and J. Geils was the stamina element. But nowadays I just really dig playing brushes -- the tonal palette is so great. You can play muted and open notes, play shaker patterns by pushing into the head, play off the drum for a rounder tone or push back into the drum for a 'whup' kind of sound.
Musician.com: What's the key to playing so many different styles without really being well versed in them?
Cain: It's aesthetics -- it's trying to get to the absolute root of what you're playing, as opposed to what you can pull off in that style. If it's something you're not particularly familiar with, try to go to the absolute root of it -- how do I stay out of the way and make this shit rock? If you go to the skeletal structure of it, if you're worth your salt, you can play it. It's when you get to the drummer's agenda, like how would Dave Weckl syncopate this, that's when you get into trouble. I think drummers tend to be more competitive and often driven by their own insecurities, so there's an overachievement element.
Musician.com: Not being "musicians." Ha ha ha ..
Cain: Well, I don't know if that's necessarily true. You want to believe you can do anything. It's the illusion you create for yourself to convince yourself to get up there and play. Drummers are in a weird position because it demands a certain amount of ego -- nobody wants to play with a drummer who's musically asking the rest of the band if it's OK. They're much more comfortable with a drummer who says, 'This is where it's sitting tonight.' It might not be exactly what you had in mind but it's definitely where it is. That's what people want -- they want to be confident in you so you have to feign confidence back at them [laughs].
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