Name: Mark Kimbrell
Nationality: American
Occupation: Drummer, improviser
Recent Release: Mark Kimbrell teams up with Patrick Shiroishi for their second album as Oort Smog, Every Motherfucker is Your Brother. An edit of "Is Your Brother", the second single, is out now via AKP, with the full-length to follow in November.
Recommendations: Check out Earl Palmer’s drumming on Songs of Innocence by David Axelrod. Then get a cup of coffee from Jack Benchakul at Endorffeine next time you’re in LA.

If you enjoyed this interview with Mark Kimbrell and would like to know more, visit Oort Smog on bandcamp and Facebook. We also recommend our Patrick Shiroishi interviews about improvisation and collaboration

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started playing drums when I was thirteen. I’d jam semi-regularly with a couple guitar players from school, so I got used to playing with other people from the get-go. I knew very little about music at the time, so I’d just play along to whatever riffs they were learning. There was a lot of bad 90’s rock in there, but they were also into Jimi Hendrix, which was a lot more interesting for a drummer.

Drumming is something I’ve been drawn to for as long as I can remember. I have a big extended family with a lot of drummers in it, so maybe it’s something in the blood.

When I was very small, my mom used to read me this children’s book, Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, which is basically a nursery rhyme describing a crescendo of drumming. That apparently used to get me pretty pumped.

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

I don’t experience synesthesia. My physical response varies according to the music and my current mode of attention.

If I’m listening closely to music without drums, my fingers start tapping rapid pseudo-rhythms, sort of mapping out the various percussive densities that my fingers can fit to the tempo of the song. I also do this sometimes when there is no music on and my mind is wandering. I’m sure some of that subconsciously makes its way into patterns played on the drum kit.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I think that there is some core “personal voice” to my playing which has been there from the beginning, which consists of a small set of atypical things that I can do pretty well, and a much larger set of typical things that I can’t. So, that makes me an idiosyncratic player who can’t necessarily slot into every playing situation.

Part of my journey has been to accept this and lean into it to a certain degree. On the other hand, I’m very much into the idea of always learning, always progressing, always pushing forward.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

The world is endlessly fascinating, so I have other interests beyond music, and do other things to pay the bills. Maintaining my core identity of “being a drummer” helps keep things in focus. Watching the first half of The Sound of Metal was very intense for me—it was horrific to watch that identity being stripped away.

I’m sure it’s shaped my listening preferences over time, and a lot of my all-time favorite music is drum-centric, but I don’t think “being a drummer” has as strong of an impact on what I’m inclined to listen to these days.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

The key idea is trying not to repeat myself when writing music. Allow enough room for style, but avoid formula as much as possible.

I’ve been really lucky to work with musicians of similar mindset.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

For me it’s all about having something to say. When an idea has been expressed completely, why say it again?

Upsilon Acrux puts a really strong focus on that, so working with those guys is always exciting.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

I built drumkits for ten years. Being hands-on with thousands of drums gets you really close to the instrument, and you get pretty good at tuning and troubleshooting.

You also come to appreciate how much of a drummer’s sound is in the hands themselves. You can’t buy new ones—the only upgrade is to work at it.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

I’m up at 6:30. I put on some music while I make coffee. My girlfriend and I read the news and talk about the day to come. The neighbor’s cat might wander over. I’m off to the day job by 8:00.

My standard evening ritual for the past two decades is to grab a solo dinner in downtown LA, get a coffee, then hit the practice space for an hour or two before whatever rehearsal may be happening.  

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

The second Oort Smog album, Every Motherfucker Is Your Brother, is a single continuous piece that we wrote over the span of 18 months.

There’s a lot to keep track of, so we record all of our ideas as soon as we can play them. It’s a good method for working on something over a long time span, and allowed us to put together a fairly long and intricate arrangement without writing anything down.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

Collaboration is crucial to me.

Working in a duo, I can write something on the drums with an idea of what Patrick might do on the sax. Most of the time I will not tell him what I have in mind, and what he actually comes up with is much better than what I envisioned. That changes the trajectory of the song, and now we’re headed in an unexpected direction.

It’s much more exciting than just following a plan.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

Music has many roles in society. It builds community, often bypassing social barriers. It provides a vehicle for the expression of feelings and ideas that don’t fit the parameters of what society deems acceptable. It defines the aesthetic of each cultural epoch. It provides a connection to those we are separated from by time or space. It’s a major component of public ritual.

If we’re lucky, someone will play the right song for us when we die. Music is the fabric of life. My part is just a tiny, tiny thread.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

Patrick Shiroishi is my bandmate in Oort Smog. He and I did a one off non-Oort Smog session last year. Two days before the session, Patrick’s close friend suddenly died. That same day, my wife decided to end our marriage. We could’ve postponed the session, but decided to just do it.

I don’t know if that music will ever be released. I don’t know if it’s any good. But on that day, the music gave us something to hang on to when it felt like the ground had disappeared beneath our feet.

How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

Science yields successive technological tools that have tremendous influence on the creation and consumption of music. Musicians pushing the limits of their tools inspire the development of new technology.

The ingenuity of each field feeds the other.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

I don’t think there’s an inherent difference. It’s a matter of where we choose to focus our creative energy, individually and culturally.

There’s a guy named Jack Benchakul who owns a coffee shop called Endorffeine here in LA. He personally brews every cup of coffee, and he does it like his life depends on it. There’s so much detail, focus, and passion in what he does. So that’s where he puts his creative energy.

What I express through music is mostly nebulous blobs of feeling or ideas that are difficult to describe. What I express through music is … music.

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation for how it is able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

It pretty much works the same way as speech, right? The difference is that music leaves room for the listener to apply their own understanding to what they’re hearing.

There is no definitive understanding, and that’s where the magic is.