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Mark Guiliana Meets Kneebody

Before a rare joint performance in New York, the five musicians sit down to talk about double drumming, standup MRIs, and animatronic teddy bears

Mark Guiliana and Kneebody
Left to right: Nate Wood, Ben Wendel, Mark Guiliana, Shane Endsley, and Adam Benjamin at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Jan. 17, 2020 (photo: Deneka Peniston)

When the 2020 New York Winter Jazzfest picked drummer/composer Mark Guiliana as its artist in residence for 2020, the festival’s organizers asked him to enlist performers for various collaborative sets over the course of seven nights. Future-jazz quartet Kneebody was at the top of his list. The choice made sense, as these five musicians have a great deal in common.

Thrust into a brighter spotlight by his masterful playing on David Bowie’s final album, 2016’s Blackstar, Guiliana is a musician of eclectic tastes whose projects range from acoustic jazz (his quartet with saxophonist Jason Rigby, bassist Chris Morrissey, and pianist Fabian Almazan, sometimes called the Jersey Quartet after its 2017 recording Jersey) to EDM (the synth-driven Beat Music, whose most recent album Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! garnered a 2020 Grammy nomination), as well as an assortment of collaborations with his wife, vocalist Gretchen Parlato.

It just so happens that Parlato is also one of four singers who appear on Kneebody’s eighth and latest studio album, 2019’s Chapters, its first to be recorded after the departure of longtime bassist Kaveh Rastegar. The band chose not to replace Rastegar; instead, drummer Nate Wood plays drums and bass simultaneously, much like he does in his solo project fOUR, a man-machine meld wherein he taps bass chords with his left hand while drumming and playing keyboard with his right. Oh yeah, and he sings too.

Perhaps not surprisingly under the circumstances, Chapters takes the music of Kneebody (rounded out by saxophonist Ben Wendel, trumpeter Shane Endsley, and keyboardist Adam Benjamin) to new levels. There’s something retro-futuristic about their arrangements, as rhythms move in odd lockstep over bar lines while melodies and harmonies push forward and pull back, like a tug of war without rules. It’s funky electro-jazz with the top down.

The joint Guiliana/Kneebody show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on January 17, the penultimate night of Winter Jazzfest, wasn’t the first time these guys have played together—Guiliana has worked in various configurations with Kneebody before, both as second drummer and solo drummer when Wood handled bass duties. But they clearly don’t get to hang out as much as they’d like. That’s what comes of being super-busy and geographically far-flung, with side projects galore. Endsley’s new trio, Invisible Bird, includes drummer Scott Amendola and guitarist Dave Devine. Wendel’s High Heart features pianists Gerald Clayton and Shai Maestro, bassist Joe Sanders, vocalist Michael Mayo, and Wood on drums. Benjamin, who’s an assistant professor of jazz studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, is also developing a project with saxophonist Peter Epstein and trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Wood is recording more fOUR material, and Guiliana continues to bounce between beats and jazz, “to keep myself going.”   

An air of celebration pervaded this five-way interview, which took place at the Brooklyn venue prior to their WJF performance. Talk quickly turned from print media and podcasts to Twilight Zone bad dreams.


JazzTimes: What changes when Mark Giuliana joins Kneebody?

MARK GUILIANA: Absolutely nothing. [Laughs]

NATE WOOD: Put a different person in the band and that’s a different band. It’s always that way.

SHANE ENDSLEY: It feels really connected and very fun. When Mark’s in the band it still feels like a family, but it’s like the weird cousin came over or something. [Laughs]

Mark, what was your goal in bringing Kneebody to perform at the end of Winter Jazzfest?

GUILIANA: When the concerts happened wasn’t up to me. But I was happy wherever it landed. Definitely a goal to have as much variety as possible. Nothing that I’m doing was built from scratch just for [WJF]. It was more about, “Oh, this is a great excuse to reignite a previous thing that we don’t get to do too often.”

BEN WENDEL: We’re playing two tunes off the new Kneebody album, “Chapters” and “Spectra.” And an older tune called “Teddy Ruxpin” [from 2010’s You Can Have Your Moment]. And two Mark tunes, “Mischief” and “Dunk.”

Adding two drummers to a band is a fairly radical move. How do improvisations change?

GUILIANA: I just focus on trying to connect. Just get locked in and then it’s an energy thing, for me. It could also be subtle, but typically it sends us into some pretty energetic places. I’m a fan of Kneebody, first, so it’s been helpful to have a general sense of their repertoire over the years, and I’m a big fan of Nate’s playing. I’m definitely relying on a bit of unconscious research that I’ve been doing for 10 years. If anything, I just want to sneak inside of the band’s preexisting thing, rather than on top of it.

WOOD: If you’re talking about two drummers, generally it’s not discussed what roles are, it’s just listening and interacting.

It must be mentally different somehow.

WOOD: No, I don’t think so. It’s just different people having a good conversation. That’s how I see it.

WENDEL: I’ve seen Mark and Nate play two-drummer gigs with other drummers. I’ve seen Nate play with Dan Weiss and Dave King. What I’ve noticed specifically about how Nate and Mark play together is they’re both really good at navigating alpha and beta roles, if that makes sense. They’re extremely fast in terms of reaction time. When one person steps out, the other person knows how to simplify and support—and that can literally happen from bar to bar. And their internal pulses are different. But because of their friendship, and the amount of time they’ve known each other, they’re able to find that common beat, that pulse that exists between the two drum sets.

It’s like they’re having the same thought. Like two brains in one body.

ADAM BENJAMIN: It’s what they have in common that allows that to happen. But then they have very distinct personalities and that makes it feel more dimensional, like the beat gets wider between the two of them in combination.

Mark, you and Nate have played together for years. Has what Nate plays changed since his brain started morphing into two separate brains as fOUR?

GUILIANA: As a fan of Nate’s, I totally support [his solo work]. We were mutual sidemen fairly often, sometimes with Donny McCaslin. And in order to prioritize your own music, you have to say no to some things. We both began doing less sideman gigs. So as we were taking that path, we hadn’t been playing together, so I can’t really speak to that. But I would say no, in our environments. I’m sure it’s changing when it’s all of it [i.e., all the things that Wood does when playing in fOUR].

Are electronics running in real time when the band performs?

BENJAMIN: Tonight, I have a synthesizer and I do live effects processing. So do Ben and Shane.

WOOD: I got hella pedals.

BENJAMIN: Most of the electronic elements of the band are always done live. Even in the studio, we’re processing sounds live. It’s how we color the sound of the band as we go.

So now, both on the new album and live, Nate plays drums and bass at once.

WENDEL: Yes, that’s a new era for us, a new part of the band. Adam has sort of a bass.

BENJAMIN: I try to take some of that responsibility, so Nate’s not burdened with it the whole time, but he’s getting so good at it …

WOOD: It’s just a color change. We do it in the studio too. It’s just me hammering bass with the left hand. That’s it.

ENDSLEY: Every time Nate answers that question, it’s always like it’s nothing.

GUILIANA: “Well, I don’t like doing it. [Laughs] It’s just hammering, you know.” [More laughter]

Nate’s very matter-of-fact about everything, isn’t he? He’s better on the phone.

WOOD: [Laughs] I’m better on the phone ’cause I get to walk around. I get to pace.

How do these songs feel different to the rest of the band when played with two drummers?

BENJAMIN: It doesn’t feel any different except that now I know Nate’s personality as a bass player and a drummer. It’s really fun, now that the rhythm section has just two people. So it’s just one brain that I have to hook up with.

ENDSLEY: I think Nate is going through a vocabulary shift, in the way he plays and approaches it with a beat-making feel; it feels like he’s entering a different phase and doing some things that he hadn’t done before.

Nate, do you have strange dreams at night of missing a limb or growing a limb?

WOOD: [Laughs] My dreams are so boring. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode I saw about this guy who hates people. He wants everyone to be like him. And then it comes true and he realizes it’s horrible. It’s his nightmare. That’s kinda what my dreams are like. All the conversations are so rational and boring. Let me out of here!

When simultaneously playing bass, drums, and keyboards, is it all right brain-oriented? Because the control factor is left brain.

WENDEL: Nate, we need to get an MRI of your brain when you’re doing fOUR.

ENDSLEY: Kneebody live with the standup MRI! [Laughs]

WOOD: But I can’t move my head at all.

BENJAMIN: And you have to wear a hospital gown.

WOOD: … and have the wireless mic on. Josh Dion plays keyboards, bass, and drums, and Deantoni Parks plays keyboards and drums. There’s going to be four million people doing it by 2022.

Nate Wood
Nate Wood in dual-brain mode (photo: Alana Mayer)

Any other musical progressions or changes from the previous Kneebody album, AntiHero?

WENDEL: I would say our process was essentially the same as previous albums—tracking together trying to capture the live sound of the band. Maybe one subtle difference was we moved at a faster pace and did more of the compositional process in the studio. Also, because we had vocal guests, I think we naturally focused more on production and post-production elements: adding overdub layers, synths, mix, etc.

WOOD: I’m always trying new things from an engineering standpoint [Wood engineered four tracks as well as mixing and mastering the full album]. I tried a slightly more pop approach to these mixes, including more parallel compression. That was really the main difference. From a musical standpoint, there was a lot more fleshing out in the studio of arrangements. Because it was collaborative, and also because some of the songs we tried for the first time in the studio, such as “Chapters,” “A Seaworthy Native,” “Spectra,” and, of course, the guest vocal features. The Josh Dion feature [“Hearts Won’t Break”] was like 70% composed before we got to the studio; Ben and Josh went into the other room to write lyrics and a melody. I played drums and bass simultaneously on “Spectra,” “When It All Comes Down,” and “Ombré.”

Mark, your jazz quartet isn’t electronic, but some of the physical language of Beat Music has worked its way in rhythmically, if not tonally. Like your blazing speed.

GUILIANA: Once the palette is established, the orchestration is really fixed and limited, but in a cool way, then you can play whatever you want. If the sound is right.

On to a completely different subject. How do you field the differences in media now, from print mags to podcasts to YouTube?

GUILIANA: The print medium is limited. In this boon era of podcasts, you can listen to your favorite musician talk for an hour. Candidly, this could be a podcast. Often, I find myself reaching for the longer-form expression, whether it’s a video interview on YouTube or a podcast.

ENDSLEY: Most of our peers listen to podcasts over print.

GUILIANA: Two days ago, I was thinking about Kenny Werner and, with the exception of picking up his book, I wondered what he’s up to. I searched the podcast app and found a couple of hours’ listening. It was an interview from last year. I’m walking through the city and listening to Kenny Werner.

WENDEL: Leo Sidran has a great podcast, The Third Story.

ENDSLEY: Dave Douglas does Noise from the Deep.

GUILIANA: It seems with print media, if you have a shot of getting covered, it’s because you have a new record. Whereas a podcast is like, “Hey man, what are you doing on Tuesday? You want to talk for an hour?” That’s as compelling as a new record. It’s important to tell people about the new record, but I’m curious about more than just that new thing.

YouTube is enabling the demise of print media.

WOOD: And the demise of the album. People just want to see live videos.

Does Kneebody rely on playlists?

BENJAMIN: I think they’re an important tool for discovery. I keep hearing from young people or my students that they found Robert Glasper on a playlist, then Kneebody came up.

WENDEL: Terrace Martin says the paradigm of the traditional album release timeline has shifted. When you release an album, everything has shrunk, basically. An album is a week and a song is a day, in terms of the life of a release. Artists are adjusting. Streaming is making us stream our content, and that changes the way we share art. When I think about an album being released in the fall, what I have is content relating to that album that will last a year: for example, videos of the band that I can post for another six to seven months.

ENDSLEY: There was a traditional cycle that you would do with an album; the [label or management] would be looking towards a long buildup. That’s changing too, because there’s so much more content and the attention span on the content isn’t as long as it used to be.

By the way, Ben mentioned earlier that you’re playing “Teddy Ruxpin” tonight. Who is Teddy Ruxpin?

ENDSLEY: A children’s teddy bear from the ’80s that was animatronic …

WENDEL: You could put a tape in its back and it would make …

WOOD: … its mouth move and it’d move around …

ENDSLEY: It would ask, “Can you and I be friends?” It was frightening.

Ever see the Italian comic-book character RanXerox? It was pre-Terminator, but it looked like a Terminator. He’s big and huge and Frankenstein-ish—like an extreme parallel of this band.

[All laugh]

Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.