Mikel Patrick Avery on Creating vs Thinking, the Route to DIY, and the Black Monks
Interview with Philly-based drummer, composer/improvisor, and multidisciplinary artist: "What I'm mostly interested in is working with people, and their relationship with what they're trying to make."
Over the past decade, Mikel Patrick Avery has maybe become most recognized as the primary drummer in Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, a rhythmic juggernaut of incomparable fluidity and long-distance vision, and which garnering more and more plaudits. Rightfully so. Avery’s fit into the collective sound-making of that constantly shifting group is one of the many NIS strengths. Of course, as with most folks active in the rhythm-improvisation community, playing drums for a critically popular band is only the tip of a Mikel’s creativity iceberg.
Soon after I first met Avery in 2017, he released an EP called Play, a wonderful set of big band music that veered from Moondog/Ra horn atonalities, to something dronier, more post-punk expressionist. The EP’s launch at Chicago’s great Constellation club, also featured a pair films. One was an artsy black-box music-performance video of the formidable band of Windy City friends he brought together for Play, with backdrops, camera perspectives, and side-actions (high-lit kiddie turntables, back-lit double-dutch jumpers) that reinforced the music’s whimsy and depth. It was a serious fun video about how fun is actually quite serious. The other film, a 10minute narrative called Batter was an entirely different beast, following Mikel’s process of making his own drumheads at his home studio. A gorgeous, wordless meditation about the skills behind the music. As a creative piece, it pointed to the gravity and craft of Avery’s application in multiple mediums, and how he wasn’t overly precious about its terms.
Around that same time, I first experienced live recordings of Avery as one of the constants in The Black Monks of Mississippi, Chicago artist Theaster Gates’ occasional musical group, and it was basically a wrap. Avery’s name was added to the list of artists I need to remember to pay attention to. Whose practice spans far-flung ideas and mediums — Avery also an exceptional photographer (with a few photo ‘zines), and builds not only his own drums but engineers one-off musical electronics — while embracing a broad range emotional states. Throughout the pandemic, he’s been making music and films of his own, and videos for Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, in which he occasionally plays. It may not be much volume-wise, but its success-ratio is off the chart.
All this multidisciplinary activity, made Mikel Patrick Avery, a perfect participant in Roulette’s Shinkoyo 20th Anniversary program this past week — though it wasn’t until this conversation that I learned his relationship with the label-collective was more formal than mutually admiring. [Publishing mea culpa: I tried to finish the transcription and edit before Avery’s Saturday-night performance, but my schedule conspired against me.] Avery’s participation in this bit of Brooklyn musicking was a perfect reason to have an on-the-record chat, which he admitted he doesn’t do often. That’s too bad, cause Mikel’s breadth of experience and creative perspective feels very much like one worth hearing for the future. Plus, he’s a funny, warm, hella-sweet dude. During our Zoom conversation, which he was conducting from the backyard of his family’s home in Philly, a bird landed on his shoulder. I like to think that nature knows his value as well!
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Most people probably know you as a drummer first and foremost. Were the drums your first instrument? How'd you get into music?
I lied. <laughs>.
I like that opener.
Oshkosh, especially in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s, even now, is mostly a white town, but there was a lot of different music in my household. Getting to fifth and sixth grade, I was into skateboarding. First day of sixth grade, I met a couple other skaters. Skate culture is kind of multidisciplinary by default — the design aspect, the relationship to music, the interests are pretty wide and pretty vast. So it was the first time that I had met some people that also liked Al Green, also liked Monk, also liked Jimi Hendrix. They played guitars and were into punk, and I just wanted to hang with them. So I was like, how can I fuck with these guys as soon as possible? So at lunch, they were talking about having a band and needing a drummer, and I just, I just lied. I just said, “Yeah, I play drums.” <laughter> I remember [my friend] Aaron was like, “Cool, we'll play after school.” I was like, “Great” <laughs>. My first time playing…the hi-hat was on the right side, the floor-tom was between my legs, everything was upside-down and back-asswards, you know? And they were like, “Interesting setup.” I'm like, “Yeah!” <laughs> That first experience, I spent a good amount of time trying to figure things out, and to know more. But pretty quickly, I figured out that the first experience is maybe the thing to dive into. Of just trying to tackle something immediately. That's how I got into it — mostly, to hang out with people that I resonated with.
Sometimes it feels like you still choose projects that way.
Absolutely, especially now. There's a thing that a lot of people chase, which is trying to tap into an almost childlike mentality of making: how do you get to raw materials quickly? Why can a five-year-old draw better than me? Less filters, less thinking, more immediacy in creating. My approach with it is tackling new skillsets or techniques, and then not developing them over time, just immediately trying to make something out of it to see what comes. There might be some hurdles, but when you find something new that's of interest, the structure of the hurdles of the study of the thing, don't exist yet. So when you're presenting yourself with the challenge of creating work that's meaningful, and a good representation of yourself, you don't have the time to deal with the hurdles, or to even find out what the hurdles are.
I encountered your solo work at the very same time as I encountered your filmmaking (and your instrument-building - since that’s what Batter the first film of yours I saw is about). Did you go to art school? What led you down that path of, like, constant DIY?
If someone were to advise me properly, they probably should have said, “you should go to art school,” but they didn't. I tried doing jazz school which was super beneficial, but ultimately failed.
I was at [University of Wisconsin] Stevens Point, a great arts program, at that time really unique in that the programs all kind of interacted with each other, the sculpture department worked with the music department, there would be these [interdisciplinary] projects which was great for me. My brother's in musical theater, so he was also at that school. But naturally maybe music school wasn't the best fit. So I just took the little money I had to move to Chicago. I think if I had gone to art school, maybe I would have different complexes or anxieties about making things.
The route to DIY, full disclosure, most of it's financial. You mentioned the making of the drum heads, which I still do. It's therapeutic. I enjoy doing it. There's a connection to making an instrument and then playing that instrument, that is an unparalleled experience of just getting deeper into the sounds that you're creating. But also, a new skin head calf or goat is gonna run you $80-100, but you can buy a 36-inch skin for, you know, 30 to 40 bucks. And then you can also contact a goat farm, and get hides for next to nothing. A little bit more work prepping the hides.
Same thing with cameras where you can hire someone to film something, or you can just take the camera you have and try to do something with it. A lot of it is, how much time are you willing to put in to do it, and what's your objective, what do you want out of it?
What year did you get to Chicago? What do you remember about arriving?
2005. I didn't know anybody. I had gone down there to look for a place and met Kobe Watkins, drummer. He was super busy, and shortly after, I think he got the Sonny Rollins gig. He was really helpful. He's getting called all the time, can't make a lot of gigs, so he just naturally passed them to the person that had no gigs <laughs> and has no reason to be on certain gigs. Kobe and Jeff Parker, I met really early on. Between those two, it's just kind of learning who is doing what and where, and trying to navigate a new city.
I'm experiencing that now because I moved to Philly two years ago learning what carries over from city to city and what doesn't, career-wise, and personally. Play with somebody in Chicago that you've known for 15 years, they've seen growth and change in a person. Meet someone cold in Philly, this is their first experience with you, there's no back-story. So it's kind of fun and challenging to think about how a person's even perceiving you.
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So you’ve found community in Philly?
Absolutely. It’s been really pleasant, really warm, super grateful, a lot of great players, a lot of interesting shit happening not in plain sight [in Philly]. It’s hard to find it. Chicago had the Chicago Reader and you could open that up and find out what's up, where everything is happening. There's a couple sites in each city, and those publications were so useful to find out what's going on, even if it's a dive bar and a show that only 10 people go to. It's such a valuable resource, especially for people that are searching for some form of “other.”
When you're not from a place and you move there as an adult, you maybe haven't experienced all the warts yet, <laughs>. But even when they come, the flowers may be bigger than the thorns <laugh>
Tell me a little bit about your filmmaking and your other visual work. How'd you start?
I got a camera in like 2007. Sony Cybershot, a fantastic shitty camera. It kinds of harkens back to skating. I was an awful skater. And usually what happens is that the worst skater becomes the guy who films — because someone's gotta film the good skaters. If I think of the term filmmaker…it's a little bit heavy. But, you know, I make films <laughs>. It is really just that you have a camera and then you have an idea, and then you film that idea. Not to like oversimplify it, but it is maybe that simple.
And then, just don't do the things you don't like. Usually what happens is someone will ask me to do something, and my initial impulse is to say “No,” almost always. But I know I should say yes, so I say “Yes” the next day, and then I spend from there till the deadline completely stressing out about what it is that I should do. Because **anything** can be done. So I just start exploring options, focusing less on what the film should be than on other aspects that will lead you to what the film will be. Then just keep stripping it away, stripping it away, failed idea, failed idea. Before finding an idea and overworking it, often finishing the film — and only when you finish, that the idea of what you should **actually** do comes. So then you do that.
That’s almost par-for-the-course for me. There's a slew of other films with almost everything that I've done that was the initially completed project. And once the weight of the initial idea is over, you wake up the next day going, “Wait, it could just be this.” That ends up being easier to do and a better representation of what you're feeling.
I have a long-running fascination with the Black Monks. Not just the music but the relationship between you all. It seems like at this point, the core of the Monks is Theaster [Gates], you, Ben [Lamar Gay], and Yaw [Agyeman]. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship? Maybe start with where you met those cats, and what goes on between y'all when you make music, because it seems like a “care” which is just so apparent and powerful. I think the display of that relationship affects everybody who hears you play. Talk a bit about the music and the intentions, the place where it comes from.
I met Theaster on tour with [Joshua] Abrams, we met at Harvard. People had been saying to him that we should meet, people had been saying to me that we should meet. It was the same thing with Ben: when Ben moved back [to Chicago] from Brazil, he was playing with Ernest Dawkins outside my house on the street. I think my daughter was just born, I was super tired. It was right outside my house. I just opened the window, lay in bed and listened, And then I heard this cornet and I was like, okay, who is this? So I go outside. “Oh, you're Ben Lamar,” that great type of meeting
There are people in the scene that you somehow don't cross paths with, and then once you finally do it, it's unshakeable. I'm not so much into the Zodiac (but especially being in Philly, I’m learning). Theaster’s birthday was a couple days ago, my birthday and Ben's birthday is tomorrow [early September], Yaw’s birthday is next week. Us all being born within the same week, especially Virgo energy. Technically, I don't think it should work at all, but it has maybe the inverse reaction. It's like these powers just keep pulling us into each other, deeper and deeper.
There's something very special about each of our abilities, our skill sets. I always tell Theaster that we all have a mirror image of each of us [inside the band]: Yaw can do everything that Theaster can't, Theaster can do everything Yaw can't, there's some overlap. And the same for me and Ben. So out of that, a torch can be passed very easily from one person to another, within that gray area. The things that we all share. So out of that, a duet between me and Yaw can be mirrored by a duet between Ben and Theaster. Or you can have all these different configurations between the four of us that offer a lot of contrasts that aren’t so stark. So then when it happens that all four of us are performing at the same time, it's almost like this mirror facing a mirror, there’s this infinite depth that happens when the four of us are all going. I bring it up all the time with the group, as something not to try to do — I think “trying” is the Achilles heel of almost everything <laughs> — but something to be mindful of while we're making.
What is your relationship to Shinkoya, and tell me a little bit about who you're gonna be playing with at the Shinkoya retrospective at Roulette next week — and what people might want to expect.
I'm not sure who reached out first, Lia Kohl or Matt Mehlan. They asked me to do some film work, and I mean, it really is just that where everyone's pleasant, communication's great, carte blanche to do whatever it is that I want to do. I’ve definitely done two [pieces] for them, there's a film called Inchworm, and a box fan thing that I did. When a label has very clear aesthetic and idea of what they wanna do, when the directions that they're interested in exploring are apparent without too much conversation needing to be had, it makes creating for a label that much easier, makes it easy to say yes because you're not wondering about certain aspects of making, you know that it'll fit with what they envision,
I don't deal with the “client” relationships often — when it does pop into your head, you have to throw it away. If there was no body of work, that would be one thing, but there is a body of work, so I guess they did ask me for a reason.
But sometimes, even with playing the drums, someone will ask me to play on a thing and…the expectation of somebody being aligned with your own idea of yourself is slim-to-none, or the trappings of having an inflated idea of self, I guess… So when someone asks me to play drums, I'm mostly interested in working with people that want to do something, or trying to facilitate that something to happen without losing integrity. I'm naturally interested in a wide variety of things. But what I'm mostly interested in is working with people, and their relationship with what they're trying to make. So when someone asks me to play drums, I'm not completely sure what it is that they heard or witnessed that caused them to call me. If I get into the studio and they're like, “Okay, do the Mikel thing,” I'm not completely sure which Mikel thing they’re talking about. <laughs>.
So what are you playing at Roulette — and who with?
Victor Viera-Bronco is the vibraphonist, and has been instrumental in me acclimating to Philly. Also, he's from Brazil, so he’s tight with all the Brazilian musicians active in the spheres we all operate in. Spectacular improviser, instigator, one of my favorite peoples for sure. John Sutton is a friend I've had since I was a teenager, plays bass, he's gonna fly in from Chicago. He did “Play” and all the “Sore Thumb” stuff. Our relationship is such where, you know, time is our best friend — we know each other so well that when we do need each other, we show up greatly. Sophia Boro is playing acoustic guitar. I think originally she’s from Omaha, but lives in Philly now. One of the most talented people I've been around. She has her own songs and music and a voice like I haven't experienced [before]. I've been working on her record. We were introduced by a mutual friend as I was looking for a guitar player that wasn't really from the jazz idiom, not an improviser. Which leads to the idea of the group. Sophia's been fantastic at tackling these kinds of gestural ideas.
The “Sore Thumb” music is all centered around the idea of sonic mobiles, like a three-dimensional sonic structure. I constantly bring up with [the other musicians] that it's maybe a type of anti-skill, similar to a wind chime, where skill is removed from the equation. So what happens when you do that? When you can compose or create a structure that leans on that, what's the outcome? At first glance, it seems relatively easy, then in practice you realize how difficult it is to shed skill, to let things just interact and happen naturally, without premeditation. What are the aspects of music, or of making, that are “just do - don't think.” That's cool. That's what we're striving for, to have the actual music, the actual compositions be “just do - don't think.”