In honour of tomorrow night’s return of Mack Longpre’s Large Ensemble to the Toronto stage, we’re re-posting our Exclusive Interview with the prolific drummer/up-and-coming composer from his album release back in September.
Read what he has to say, then be sure to stop by Gallery 345 on Saturday, March 2nd at 8pm to hear the latest from Longpre and his assemblage of crazy-talented peers.
Originally Published: Sept 24, 2012:
Remember our Video of the Day a while back, the one with the crazy-good drumming? Well we thought we’d follow up on that with an exclusive interview featuring the man behind that drum kit, Mackenzie Longpre.
The 24-year-old University of Toronto grad’s first album is launching on Friday with a special concert at The Music Gallery. But before you head out (which you should definitely do) to hear Longpre and his band conquer 2 hours worth of his original compositions, take a minute to read what he has to say about them (the band and the compositions).
I met Longpre at a small tea shop in North York, where he defiantly ordered coffee and wryly recounted some of his misadventures in the world’s “coolest” profession.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Compositionally, the only people I was listening to while I was writing the record- Donny McCaslin, Maria Schneider, Dave Binney, Brian Blade Fellowship. And then local heroes of mine- David Occhipinti, David Braid. Who else? Jeff Buckley, obviously, there’s a Jeff Buckley cover [on the album] because I love Jeff Buckley. I think those are the main ones, the prominent ones that people will hear on the record.
Throughout my life? Queen [laughs as if to say “Or Course!”], Rush, Guns & Roses.
Are these just your favourites or people who’ve influenced you?
Both. Definitely both. More importantly- John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Shirley Horn- more recently- who’s a wonderful singer. Those fellow there. And ladies. Ladies and fellas. Those would be the big ones.
Why the drums? How’d you get started?
Ahh the drums. I played violin first [first pump: “yes!”] and, after being bored to tears with it for about 2 years, I started imitating Roger Taylor- my favourite drummer, from my favourite band Queen- on coffee cans and pots and pans and blah blah blah. I tried to make my own cymbals out of tinfoil too; it didn’t work. So there was about a year of that then my parents couldn’t ignore me anymore. They were like “okay, we’ll buy you a practice pad”, a little pad and some sticks, to replace the sticks that I tried to whittle out of the maple branches from my backyard. [pause while I laugh hysterically and he thanks the waitress for the chocolate cheesecake he’s devouring]. I guess they felt sorry for me. They’re like “keep this up for a year and we’ll buy you a snare drum”. I kept it up for a year and they got me a snare drum and drum lessons.
How old were you then?
Grade 4. How old are you in grade 4- 9? 10 maybe? [correct answer: 9].
And then they were like “keep this up for a year and maybe we’ll get you a drum kit”. I spent the Christmas season looking through the Sears catalogue that had little toy drum kits in them, and I fantasized about having a toy drum kit. Anyway, I took to the snare drum pretty well and I think my drum teacher was so bored just teaching me snare drum things, he was the one who went to my parents and was like “you’ve gotta buy this kid a drum kit”. So my folks got me a drum kit for my birthday. So that’s how/why the drums. It was just out of curiosity and passion for rock music that I became a drummer, wanting to be like Roger Taylor.
When did you know that you wanted to drum as a career?
When my dreams of being a professional baseball player failed. I wanted to be a baseball player; I wanted to be, specifically, a shortstop for the New York Yankees because I figured I’d be about the right age when Derek Jeter was gonna retire. However, I’m at prime baseball playing age right now and Jete is still slaying it. But I really wanted to be a baseball player, then I quickly realized, by about grade 8, that I couldn’t be a ball player because I sucked. And I remember saying to myself, “if I’m not a baseball player, I’ll just fall back on music; it’ll be easy” [laughs]. I’d rather do something I like than something I don’t like.
Tell me about some of your teachers. Were there any who had a particularly big influence?
I had a teacher named Jim Blackley, who was not my first teacher but certainly the most important teacher I ever had. He was an elderly man, an elderly Scotsman, and certainly the Canadian jazz drumming guru. He’s taught almost every fantastic drummer in Toronto, Canada, and abroad, including another one of my heroes, Terry Clarke. I got hooked up with him in grade 10 and I was lucky to get a spot with him. I wound up seeing him once a month, every fourth Sunday at 9am. I spent 5 wonderful years learning from him, and probably disappointed him. But hopefully I make him proud with this record.
How would you describe your musical taste/style?
I write the type of music that I like to listen to, which is large ensemble, pretty heavily orchestrated. I like multiple sections within songs, sort of like a modern big band style. I like drama in music. I definitely like a good sense of drama; I think most people do. Some people may be afraid to admit it but most people probably do. And I like music that will move more people than just the fans of that artist. I like music that can touch people, anybody who listens to it. So I tried to write something like that. Whether I succeeded we’ll never know [laughs]. I think that my favourite artists- Maria Schneider, Dave Binney, all those people- are exactly like that. I feel like I can play that music for anybody and they’ll be like “wow, that’s amazing, that makes me feel something”.
Drummers can often be like contract players. How many bands do you play in on a regular basis?
Like most musicians in the world, you have to try and put eggs in as many baskets as you can. So I’m definitely far from the only person who does this. Probably everybody does this. But particularly as a drummer, bass player, guitar player, or piano player, you tend to play in lots of bands, hopefully different styles. So I’m currently actively involved in 5 or 6 projects- meaning that we rehearse regularly enough. And I’m passively involved in maybe 5 or 6 other projects on top of that.
How many of those groups do you write for?
Well, The Ninja Funk Orchestra- Toronto’s finest electro, uh, acoustic dance troupe [at this point he gets awkward about not knowing how to describe Ninja Funk and asks me to edit that part. As you can see, I did not]. We compose together, without sheet music. So you could say that I compose for that band. I write for a jazz collective called Circles. I bring my tunes in to a bunch of different jazz groups. More recently it’s been the Teri Parker trio/quartet. I’m going to try and start writing a few things for Shafton Thomas Group, but you can’t really cite me as writing anything for that yet. He has thrown the invite open, saying “you can write”. [Here he gets distracted by the waitress from whom he is ordering more sugar for his coffee, specifically “the brown stuff”]. What was your question? Oh, writing. Yeah yeah- Circles, Ninja Funk, Beetleback trio with members of Ninja Funk in it. A group called Monster- which is a subsection of the Elastocitizens- again, we also all write things together. I enjoy the collaborative experience of writing music; it can be frustrating sometimes, but that’s a neat thing that I’ve been exploring. So there’s that, then there’s me just writing songs.
You play with bands that do jazz, funk, and even hip hop. How did you formulate what your style was going to be for your own work?
It was very much a product of listening to Donny McCaslin, Maria Schneider, etc, and saying “God damn, I wanna play that music so bad” and I didn’t yet have a band that played that music. So I decided to try my hand at writing that music. And I really did emulate those guys in writing style. I’m really not much of a writer. Until this record came about, I didn’t really get to try anything. And I still don’t think I’m as good a writer as most people, but I do know how to emulate a good song. I like to take elements of songs- a form or a harmonic idea or a rhythmic idea, something like that- and try to write something original with that in mind. In Ninja Funk we call it “modeling”, you take a song and just model something off of that. So I did a lot of modeling on this record [laughs].
Your first album is coming out on the 28th- you composed all the songs yourself?
I composed all the songs except for “Everybody Here Wants You”, which is a Jeff Buckley song that I have arranged. Fans of the song will probably say that I didn’t do much to arrange it, which is true. There were actually more mixing and editing decisions that contributed to the feel and sound of that song than anything else, so I would give Andrew Mullin- my editor, mixer, producer, engineer, friend- an arrangement credit for that song, for sure.
You’ve sort of already touched on this but how do you approach composition? Do tunes ever appear in your head and you just have to write them down?
Never! [laughs]. That’s a lie, actually. Let’s say- arbitrary number- I’ve written 15 songs in my life. I would say 4 of them I hummed a melody and was like “ah, that’s pretty cool” and then picked it out on the piano. The other ones have been slow, painstaking, drawing blood experiences of trying to wrench something out of my cold dead soul [laughs].
So it’s safe to say that writing doesn’t come naturally. Is it something that you want to pursue going forward?
Certainly. I love the idea of writing. Which is probably why I started doing it in the first place, I love the idea of writing something and being like “hey, friends, let’s play My song!”. Which, by the way, drummer joke: what are a drummer’s last words before he gets kicked out of his band? “Can we try My song?”. But yeah, it’s something that, like playing an instrument, takes practice, takes time to improve. So hopefully I’ll only get better. For my own sake, I hope I get better! So yes, it is something that I’m going to keep doing and that I very much enjoy.
Drummers aren’t often the composers of the group. Do you ever find yourself composing rhythmically and focusing less on the melody because of where your expertise lies?
Certainly not, because I would argue that my expertise is not drumming, it is listening to music [laughs]. I’m much better at listening to good music than I am at playing the drums. And so I’ve listened to a lot of music that really moves me and I try to write to that emotion rather than try to come up with a neat rhythmic pattern or anything. And anything rhythmic that I have written has been completely by mistake.
How long have you been working on the compositions that are on the album?
There’s one song, in particular, that is very old. It’s been around for at least six years. And people make fun of me for that. Mark Godfrey [one of the bassists on the record] makes fun of me for that because he’s played it for years in various groups and is like “this one again, eh?”; it’s recorded on the Circles record also. This record was finished about a year and a half ago, we recorded it almost 2 years ago, so all of the music is, at the youngest, 2 years old. Though, for the release, I’ve written a lot of new music, so the band is playing a lot of music that is only a month or so old as well. There’s a nice mix of old and new.
Is that new material going to be on the next record?
I hope so, yes indeed, all the new stuff that I’m playing. In fact the concert’s going to be way too long; I may have to cut some things. I probably have more new material now than I do record material.
Do you have foreseeable plans for a next record with that material?
No. It would be foolish to think about the next one before this one’s even released, I think. I would like to take this puppy for a walk, you know. Take it for a spin. Maybe take it on tour, to some festivals, all that awesome stuff. I need to perform this stuff, anyway.
Do you have a favourite song on the album?
It changes every day.
What’s the current reigning favourite?
It’s probably a song called “Infinite Jest” currently. But literally every day- “Catarina” was yesterday, “Infinite Jest” today, “News of the World” another day.
“Infinite Jest”- A Shakespeare or David Foster Wallace reference?
The most famous work of my most favouritest author, David Foster Wallace.
“Most Favouritest”, do you think he would frown on your use of incorrect English?
I think that most of his books are written in colloquial English and so I think he has a fine time with people speaking tongue-in-cheek the way they want to.
I understand that each song on the album is dedicated to a specific person in your life. Will we get to hear some of those stories at the release party?
You may hear some of those stories. The problem is that concert is going to be really long so talking time will have to be very rushed. I’d rather play music than talk to people. I will be talking but hopefully very little.
If only one song gets a story intro, whose is it?
My parents’ song.
You hand-picked all the musicians who play on the album. Tell me about them.
Yes [fist pump] good question! My favourite question so far. Should I give you a quick rundown of everybody?
On the record there are 2 singers-
Alex Tait, a very good friend of mine. I play in a couple bands with her including Circles Quartet and Spandex Effect. She’s very much a fun-loving lady and has superb pitch. I started out writing things for her, just having her double instruments. And she never said a word of complaint. But then, I think at some rehearsal without a horn there, she had to sing these really complex melody lines kind of on her own, and she was perfect. It was like “oh, she’s like actually really good!”. This was a couple years ago, and I told her that to her face, I’m like “you’re way better than I thought a singer could be”. So anyway, she’s awesome.
Alex Samaras, another singer who is not only one of the most talented people to come out of U of T but certainly one of the sweetest. He’s intimidatingly talented, I would say. I get a little flustered talking to him sometimes cause he’s so good. He’s got a really really amazing voice; I wish I got to use him more on the record. But he’ll be used a little more at the release and hopefully on the subsequent record.
James Ervin, trumpet player. He went to Humber College; an east coaster at heart. He’s a phenomenal trumpet player. He plays both trumpet and flugelhorn on the record and does a damn fine job of it. I met him in grade 12 in the Yamaha All Star big band in Ottawa and we’ve crossed paths every so often. I knew that he was the finest trumpet player I could think to hire.
Anthony Rinaldi, alto sax player. He went to U of T with me, in my year [class of 2010]. Saxophone player and bari player, both exceptional. And he’s started playing tenor now, and he plays that really well too. Probably one of the most naturally talented saxophone players that I’ve heard; he just sounds great All The Time. He’s a very quiet and very sweet fella. I also met him in the Yamaha All Star band and ended up going to U of T for four years with him.
Gordon Hyland is one of my absolute best friends. I’ve known him since grade twelve also, meeting in a community big band that we played in together on one gig- I was subbing for my high school music teacher Myles Crawford. Gord and I have sort of musically grown together over so many years. Almost every project I’m in shares the common thread of Gordon Hyland. There are only a handful that I play in where he’s not involved. And should I need anybody to play on anything, he does it. He also plays keys now and he’s doing an awesome job of that. Founding member of Ninja Funk Orchestra with me.
Did you say that he plays the saxophone?
Oh right, he’s on tenor sax.
Neil Whitford plays guitar. Also one of my finest musical friends and also a founding member of Ninja Funk Orchestra. Very much a sweetheart, a very sensitive man, and a “jazz rock star” which made him exactly the guitar player I needed for this record. I needed somebody who was going to both play lines and comp melodically- do the jazz thing- but somebody who wouldn’t be afraid to put the distortion pedal on and just give’er for a little while, which he does with extreme precision.
Matt Giffin, piano player. Also an east coaster, also a Humber guy. One of James Ervin’s best friends from, I think from childhood they knew each other. He is a supremely accomplished jazz and pop piano player, which is a very hard thing to do and there are not many of those in the city. He slays the pop music- synths and all that, he knows how to get all that out. But then you hear him do jazz, play a standard, and he’s one of the best I’ve ever heard in the city as well. It just happens that there’s more money and he gets hired a lot to play pop music. So he’s definitely a gem in Toronto.
Mark Godfrey on upright bass. He’s another guy who went through U of T with me all four years. He is certainly the most improved musician I’ve ever met; man did he fuckin’ practice! He’s worked the hardest to get to where he is, for sure I think. And he’s now become one of the most in-demand young upright bass players in Toronto, which is definitely not an exaggeration. And another one of my best friends; very much a longtime colleague and friend of mine who I, uh, like a lot.
Andrew Roorda plays electric bass. He’s a guy I looked up to when I first heard him play with a band called Yuka. I remember thinking “that’s how an electric bass is supposed to sound”, I’d never heard that live before except in big rock shows. I’d never heard people in a club playing a bass like that. I was so blown away and in about a year or so Ninja Funk needed to find a bass player, so I said to Gord “hey, I’ll shoot this Andrew Roorda guy a message”, which was an incredibly intimidating thing for me to do. So I did, and he’s also a really really nice person who just said “yeah, I’ll play”. The turning point of Ninja Funk was when we whittled ourselves down to a quartet and we followed Andrew’s lead into a more electronic realm. It freed us up to do what we wanted. And he’s a master of the electric bass, and a master of electric bass pedals and effects. There are few bass players I’d want to play with as much as I do Andrew Roorda.
Then, she’s not on the record, but at the release, Chloe Charles. One of my great great friends who is an extraordinarily accomplished guitar player and vocalist in her own right. I play in her project as well, which is a great honour and privilege. By the time it came time to do this release, I knew that I needed to include Chloe somehow, so I made sure she was on there.
And if I can say something about everybody it’s that the most important thing to me, for the record, was to play with my friends. And that is exactly what I did. I made sure that first and foremost I only hired my friends- who I am lucky enough to say are some of the most talented musicians in Toronto. But I really wanted it to be only my friends on the record, hanging out with me, playing my music, because I knew they would be the ones that would both treat it with care and make fun of me for everything that I did.
Does that make it easier to hand over the melodies you invented then sit behind the drum kit and let them go?
Oh God yeah. If it had to be some guy I didn’t know, but hired because he was a big name or something, it would not be nearly as fun.
You’ve been in the recording booth before but what was it like running your own session and wrangling the band?
As a sideman throughout my whole career, it’s very strange to have to lead my own band. It makes me grateful for the bandleaders I’ve played under, as I’ve never understood the administrative side of running a band. Booking gigs, setting up rehearsals, buying beer, blah blah blah. All that is hard and time consuming, let alone writing and arranging original music.
Does the album have any overarching themes?
Well the whole record, each song is- whether they know it or not- a small tribute to the people they were written for. The titles being the key to who they’re written for. So that would be a theme, I guess. I wanted to write a record that I played with my friends that was also for my friends, and for the people that I loved.
Why the title summer house?
My best friend Matt and I were sitting in my basement, drinking beers and trying to come up with the title for the album. He was throwing around a bunch of ideas, and I was throwing around a bunch of not-as-good ideas. And “summer house” seemed to be the one that we ended on. Neither of us said it should definitely be the one for the record but, after a few days, it stuck and I said “ah” [with changing inflections] “summerhouse, Summer house, summer House”. And it fit the image of the album cover first, and it fit the music as well.
What’s the album cover?
The album cover is an old, digitally restored photograph of my great grandfather, great grandmother, and my great aunt Poppy. My grandfather, who I never met (my dad’s dad), unfortunately had to be cropped out of the rightmost portion of the album cover; it is his torso on the back, but you can’t see his face. It’s just a photograph of them in the countryside of England, all looking in one direction. It’s a very dramatic photograph.
What else do we need to know before hearing the album?
General listeners? I want to say “give it a shot” [laughs]. The most important thing to me, for this record, for all this music that I’ve written, would be to elicit an emotional response from the listener, of some type or another. I’m fortunate that I like this music. It seems like a very populist type of jazz to be playing. Please don’t be afraid of the word jazz or get turned off by the word jazz, because it’s not gonna be boring, I swear to god. I Swear To God, it’s not gonna be boring. I feel like it’s just something where, if you listen to it, give it the chance and just be patient with me and with it. And by “patient” I mean the record’s 56 minutes long, and even if you just want to listen to one song, at most they’re anywhere from 5 minutes to almost 10 minutes. Give it a chance, listen to it all the way through and see if it makes you feel anything. But do give it a fair shake, please.
After the release, where will people be able to find the record?
You can download it for 8 dollars (or more if you choose) at mackenzielongpre.bandcamp.com, which you can also link to through my website mackenzielongpre.com (which’ll be up and running in a few days). And I’m probably gonna get something set up with cdbaby.com so you can get a physical copy- I assume you’ll just have to search my name. Otherwise, come to a show and meet me; talk to me and tell me why you’re there, please. I’d like to meet the people who are willfully coming and subjecting themselves to my music; it’s an odd thing for me and I would love to meet those people, and I would love to make a connection with somebody and give them my record that way. That’s the best way, if you’re around.
So the record comes out on Friday, September 28th. What else is coming up for you?
There’s nothing set after this for this band, though I’m going to try and book a tour with the help of a wonderful publicist named Lesley Mitchell-Clarke. Hopefully we’ll get on the festival circuit with that band, coming up in the summer. But I’m sure, once the ball’s rolling now and the music’s been rehearsed, maybe I’ll try and book another gig in the next month or two after the release to keep the ball rolling; maybe a December show somewhere nice as well. And then hopefully recording the new material, next year sometime.
But for me in general, lots of gigs. Ninja Funk is turning up again, Beetleback Trio will be recording again, maybe at the end of October- that’s Andrew, Gord and I. Teri Parker’s just started her own trio/quartet, which is me, Mark Godfrey and sometimes Allison Au. Circles Quartet is going to be applying for grants. We’re searching for a new piano player currently, to replace the beloved and departed Hayoun Lee who went back to Korea. And Monster will be gearing up again- Steven McCarthy and company. Shafton Thomas Group will be hopefully recording soon, and playing. So there are a lot of things on the horizon with a bunch of other groups. I get to fall back into anonymity for a little bit.
One last question. Drummers are really cool, right? Tell me one story from your own experience that supports that, and one that doesn’t.
Oh they’re both stories about me? I’m actually trying to think of a cool story. Legitimately- I’m not saying this to seem humble or some shit- I actually can’t think of any time that I’ve been straight up cool…
Okay, the coolest one? The first Ninja Funk show at the Mod Club. There were tons of people there, and it was the first time I ever finished a set and then threw a drumstick in the audience. It’s actually the only time I’ve done that- threw a drumstick in the audience. Now that’s tempered by being not cool because my parents were there, and the only thing they said to me after the show was “you shouldn’t have thrown that drumstick, you could have hurt somebody like that”.
And the least cool I’ve ever been, certainly, also has to do with throwing sticks. In grade 10, the first time I ever played at the girls school down the road. I had prepared this moment in one of the pieces where I was gonna throw a drumstick and twirl it a la Neil Peart. It was my first time playing in front of girls, at this all-girls school, it was my first year in the jazz ensemble and I had a drum solo. So I was super nervous but also super amped and I wanted to throw the drumstick; I knew exactly when I was gonna do it. So we play the song, and I’m bordering on being violently ill the whole time, because I’m so nervous. Here comes the moment, and it was just pure me wanting to show off, just Mack trying to be a douche, and being like “I’m just gonna be a cool guy for a little bit” (which, for anybody listening, if you ever see a drummer do stick tricks or throwing sticks, unless they’re Really good at it, it’s not cool. It’s just Never cool). So I threw the drumstick way high, and it was a perfect toss. I knew as soon as I let go of it, that it was perfect. It’s coming back down at me and my hand is out, ready to receive it. I can see that the butt of the stick, too, is going to be facing the right way when I caught it. Everything was perfect. But my hand was just low enough that the stick hit the rack tom in front of me, bounced, and hit me in the forehead. Then it when scattering onto the cold, hard stone floor of the alter at this girls school auditorium, making a horrendous noise and also causing me to miss my entrance, thus screwing up the entire song until I could get another stick from my stick bag- which I didn’t leave next to me, because I’m also stupid. So I had to go grab another stick and continue playing this already absolutely decimated version of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip”. Ironic that it’s in a song called “What is Hip”.