“I Was Fighting For a Connection to Music History”: An Interview with Deantoni Parks

Will Schube talks with Deantoni Parks about working with John Cale, sampling as a means of communication, and jam bands.
By    January 25, 2016

deantoni parks

French philosopher Jacques Derrida created a term called iterability, focused around the concept of “quotation” and how it represents both repetition and a deletion of repetition. A quotation is an exact mimic of an original thought, text, or image, but quotations are also entirely reliant on context. This creates a conundrum: the exact same thing means something entirely different when de-centered from its attached structure.

This idea is at the core of Deantoni Parks’ album, Technoself. Parks is a world class drummer, but the album displays a side of him less interested in drum chops and fills, than in a core philosophy that thrusts musical ideas into action. Samples are repurposed and distorted from original contexts, turning some of your favorite work into ideas nearly impossible to conjure.

After many years of drumming in some of your favorite bands (The Mars Volta, John Cale), Parks has decided to step out from the shadow of his kit and asserts himself as a distinguished and fresh voice in electronic music. Released via Stones Throw subsidiary Leaving Records, Technoself was recorded entirely live without overdubs. Parks calls this the “Technoself Method” and has applied it both to his own work and to his work with other groups. This method has yielded a wildly creative album that blurs the lines between live performance and recorded work. His take on songcraft is a refreshing change of pace and only the beginning of a new chapter in a remarkably storied career.

I spoke with Parks over the phone about creative limitations, the process of clearing samples, his work as a session musician, and the pros and cons of freelance work instead of a consistent paycheck. —Will Schube

Let’s start all the way back. I was wondering if you could outline your New Wave Manifesto. What it meant to you at the time of its inception, and what, if anything it means to you now.

Deantoni Parks:  At the time it was about finding a group of people that I felt I could feel comfortable creating with. It was more about working with others because I’ve always been the introspective type. Obviously that’s changed a lot now. I felt like I did find those people, starting out with Nick Kasper and my band Kudu. Then John Cale, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, so on. That’s what it was about. Trying to make a conscious effort to reach people on multiple levels. And now that’s turned into something else. Now it turns into: How can you do that with yourself? It now gets to the point where it’s, you know, Technoself.

What does the album title Technoself represent for you?

Deantoni Parks: I was skimming through some engineering technology, and that term comes from “technoself studies,” originally called TSS. It’s this Italian engineer who just started using the phrase two years ago. So it’s a very fresh term. But obviously I ran into it differently. I intended it to be a term involving anything with humans and technology coming together, which is pretty simple but very accurate to what I do. But also, I just like the ring of it. It just felt right. Obviously nomenclature is important, so I was happy about that.

 You’ve played with some amazing musicians. How did the Mars Volta gig come about?

Deantoni Parks: I was doing work with Kudu and I got the attention of a lot of people, one of whom was Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. He reached out to me and I met him when he was living in Brooklyn. It’s kind of terrifying when you put yourself out there. Especially in a band like that, with such tremendous fans. I didn’t want to be compared to any other musician on the planet, either. So the situation was a bit weird. But I really had a connection with Omar. I was kind of skeptical, because I had my own band and my own identity. I was already working with John Cale very heavily. You know, so, that meeting set off years of collaboration. It was just a feeling.

That band has a history of employing amazing drummers, from yourself to Jon Theodore and Thomas Pridgen. How did you approach bringing your own style to a band with such distinctly creative drummers?

Deantoni Parks: Omar has a strong hold on that band. Everything that anyone does is through him. Speaking of the manifesto, I got lucky meeting people that wanted to collaborate and would let me be me. Even when it was against their own message, which was clearly the case with Mars Volta. It was so easy for us to record together. I think he got a kick out of it and we could get a lot done. He just trusted me. He would have me do a few things—he would have some ideas here and there—but he let me bring me to the table. And that was already a trend with John Cale, who’s my hero by the way. Everyone who’s asked to work with me tells me to avoid what past drummers have done. Just do what you do. And that’s the largest success in a collaboration.

How was it working with John Cale?

Deantoni Parks: I was just plugging away in New York when this call came from Anita Scott who was John’s manager. I was working with Meshell [Ndegeocello] at the time, one of the people who recommended me to John. John’s management called her, and she gave them one name. My name was right there, and I was floored. Meshell is a huge communicator and I owe her so much for that. This is a business where only other artists or writers can help you get to that point. You better be thankful for them and be paying attention to what they’re doing. You have to get them interested in what you’re doing. That’s something I was very successful at. Artists always had my back before any company did. Other artists always set me up for this—and that’s usually how it goes.

Anyways, they called me and they were gonna go with David Bowie’s drummer, Sterling [Campbell]—amazing drummer. They were all in New York City and I was in LA. They offered me the position, but I was on the other coast and they were moving quickly. They kept me in mind but decided they were gonna go with Sterling.

It was in ’03, kind of a big comeback tour for John. After telling me the whole situation, ‘You’d be working with John, etc.’—this was my dream come true. I was not going to let it go. I called their management all night long. It was like the last scene in Swingers, when he hangs up and calls back and it gets out of control. That was me, on the phone with John Cale’s manager. I was like, ‘I’ll do whatever I have to do.’ It started cordial, but by the end it was, ‘Listen, I’m the king, I’m the best drummer on the fucking planet, don’t fuck this up for yourself.’ I was fighting for it, man. I was fighting for a connection to music history. I knew that it would be a major impact on my life and career.

The next morning she called me back and I thought she was going to get me arrested. But she was like, “That is so cute, we’re gonna do a conference call with John in 15 minutes.” Convincing them to take a call was the biggest success of my career up to that point. I get on the phone with John, and by the end of the conversation, I just said yes to everything he asked me, even though I wasn’t familiar with 60 percent of the things he was talking about. Management told him they thought he should go with Sterling, but John chose to go with me. It was the same thing that happened when I met Omar. Having that interaction. Being able to communicate yourself is everything. And that got John’s attention. Next thing, I’m on my way to New York City, and I’ve been working with John since ’03. I’m on his records, I’ve done remixes for him, too. For me, that’s John Cage and Aaron Copland. That’s all of it. That’s been a school in its own right, that’s why I fought for it. And now I’m Warhol affiliated [laughs].

You’ve been playing with songwriter/producer BOOTS, opening live shows as Deantoni Parks before joining his band as the drummer. How has the audience response been to your sets? Do you craft live sets differently depending on the anticipated audience?

Deantoni Parks: Again, that was a succession of people calling me for what I do. He wanted me to apply the “Technoself” method to his set, which is perfect for what he’s doing. Because it’s hard to pull that off in any other way. Before me he had two drummers and a dude who did samples. But the record—there are live drums but it’s heavy on sound design. The only way to really pull that off live was to have access to those sounds with my right hand and one stick for the drums in my left. The “Technoself” method applied itself to his music perfectly. Not only his music, either. I’m also doing that set up for John Cale. Technoself isn’t just some out there album, this is what I get paid to do by others. BOOTS wanted that, to bring that to his set. I just had to get it right for him. He didn’t want to use backing tracks, he didn’t want to use a click. He really trusted my sense of time and taste in art. So that’s a super high compliment.

You also played on Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! Did you work with him in an actual studio? What was that experience like?

Deantoni Parks: I didn’t know he knew my work, but he did. He was very low key, very cool. We just knocked it out. We recorded very quickly and very easily. It was more of a hang than a recording session. Again, lots of trust there. He knew what tracks I would fit on. I didn’t use the “Technoself” method for that. I was just playing a regular kit—two sticks, super conventional set up. It was very simple, a few takes and then we were done. I look at it drop online and people go crazy. I’m trying to get more. I want a specific “Technoself”/Fly Lo thing to happen. I’m trying to get that going. I would like to see that happen, I hope others would too. Let’s push for that [laughs].

You’ve bounced between a lot of different projects, acting almost as a freelance musician as opposed to a band member. How do you balance the artistic freedom this yields with the need for a consistent project?

Deantoni Parks You have to make choices. I’ve been in a position to be able to balance that pretty well, which is—when I look back—a shock. Being able to afford a lifestyle, I know what I need. I’m very frugal and don’t spend very much money. I was never in over my head. Things came along at the right time. I’ve been very fortunate at times. I just have to choose from whom to work with. I’ve always had people calling ready to pay me for something. And I would feel bad because I would double book sometimes. But I always had something. It was a very well rounded thing, too. It wasn’t just bands calling. It was also live tour work, tons of studio sessions, film work, and video games. All the different categories, plus teaching too. That’s quite a bit. Obviously I base it on what is in demand at the time. At some points I was teaching more, because there was no one calling for touring. Or I would be in the studio more because there was less other work. You know, it all kind of fell together, which I think is due to my communication skills. I communicate well. People call me, they remember me. I have a lasting impression on people, which is my biggest success.

Do you find it easier to support yourself as part of a touring band or as a solo musician?

Deantoni Parks: Let’s see. I’m pretty much gonna do what I wanna do, regardless of money [laughs]. If it’s a project I’m funding myself, it’s rewarding. But doing work for hire stuff is rewarding too. Obviously if I’m funding myself I enjoy that more. The stuff I control more, I’d rather do that, but they’re both great. But either way you’re getting funded. Either you’re doing it yourself or it’s coming from the outside. But it’s really about the control at that point, if we’re comparing those two things. I’d rather be in control of all my projects, and fund them myself. Either from the money the project is making, or money I’ve put away from other hired work.

I have always invested in myself in one way or another. My first band, putting out records, it would be funding from work that I would get from other people. I’d take a percentage and put it to my personal work. I’ve always believed in that. It really helps. Coming out of that manifesto, I’m going to make a purposeful decision to share my ideas and try to get them across. This is a skill we all need. So it all works together very well. I always have to fund things, but I’m in the practice of doing so.

You’ve been a professional musician for almost 20 years. How have you seen the economic landscape shift for musicians in that time period?

Deantoni Parks: You have to literally reinvent yourself year to year. I think that’s what most people don’t understand about this area of work. I’ve had to reinvent myself pretty much every year. You’re constantly forecasting what’s going to be relevant next year or in two years. Especially stylistically I feel like I’ve been a little too far ahead of where I should have been to get the work I really wanted, which were things that were beneath where I was. I felt like people didn’t quite catch onto those things, but you keep plugging away. Technoself, for instance, is the first thing I actually feel on time with. People click with it and love the record. I feel like this is the first time people have loved my records. The timing of it is remarkable. I’ve kept certain things and shedded other things. And thanks to Matthewdavid [his label boss] for recognizing it too. For understanding where it could fit in. I was going to hold this material forever until I found a label that was right. People will always call for work, but I want more than that. This is building me a bridge to something higher.

What was the process like for clearing the samples on Technoself?

Deantoni Parks This is the cool thing about working with Stones Throw. They’re sample specialists. Most labels were just afraid to tackle that issue. Those samples are cleared based on the length of time you used the sample. In this case, there’s no one playing samples more quickly. They’re Justice level stabs. I’m approaching it more as a percussionist than as a DJ. Instead of two beats, it’s just an eighth note now. I’m kind of like the diamond cutter of samples. It becomes a different arrangement. Dilla was always cutting pretty quickly, just like one beat cuts, but even that’s pretty long.

Your album displays a serious versatility in source material. Can you speak on the process of song construction? How do you approach songwriting? Do you pick out a sample and work around it, or are samples layered on after the drum parts have been recorded?

Deantoni Parks: The sampling aspect has to be very personal. My music draws on excitement and enthusiasm. If that’s not there, I can’t access other parts of my musical intellect. It can’t be just brain, it’s also got to be heart. I pull from all the things that get my blood flowing. Everything from Black Sabbath to Phish and the Grateful Dead. I have a soft spot for the jam band scene. They gave me a lot of love early in my career. I love all of that stuff.

Yeah, the first time I heard “Pebble” and heard that “Stash” sample my jaw dropped a little bit. I was not expecting that, but it works so perfectly.

Deantoni Parks: Yeah, they’re [Phish] an amazing group. I’m also calling out these people. It’s a very spiritual thing. The sampling is almost like calling out to the spirits.

It’s a way of interacting and repurposing the music you grow up with and enjoy.

Deantoni Parks: Absolutely. Just creating a new syntax of rhythm. All the way up to Michael Jackson, it’s all the things that get me going. That’s the purpose of the samples, to call out to those spirits.

Like the “Stash” sample for example, it almost sounds like an old psych record. When you shift the context of these samples, are you specifically trying to change the context of the snippet, or is that just a natural process of your style?

Deantoni Parks: Once I figure out the palette of samples I want, it becomes what you hear out of this. That’s the fun part. Then I just let my fingers guide me, I just find places that fit with me. That’s what becomes the composition. Then it becomes an A part, a B part—even a bridge if I want to go there. Then the arrangement becomes a little more visible. It’s just based on simple, inspiring things. When you start from that point, composition and arrangement become afterthoughts.

Live, you’re never going to hear the thing the same way. It’s like the Grateful Dead, you’d have to come to every show. I’m going to do that “Stash” sample differently every time. I’m not going to belittle my audience because I don’t have a singer—to do it the same way every single time. It’s a freedom to do it differently, and it’s an accomplishment. It’s really coming out of that jam band world. You don’t need a hook to get people hooked. I love that aspect, it’s very powerful.

How did your relationship with Stones Throw and Leaving Records come about?

Deantoni Parks: I got very lucky. Like I said, I was willing to hold this material forever if I didn’t get a proper label that I thought fit and could really nurture what I was doing.

I did a Dublub anniversary show in LA—so glad I did. It was in a studio, and it was a packed house—really cool. But I didn’t think much about it. I just threw myself into it. Carlos Niño, who really oversaw this record [Technoself] and basically executive produced it along with me told me to play the show.

Matthewdavid was there and saw me perform. He did not know who I was, but he totally got it and approached me to do something with Stones Throw directly after that. The timing was impeccable. They’ve been so great. And Leaving Records—which is the diamond in the rough within Stones Throw—this is their first time charting. It’s such an honor. It’s been really cool and low key. It’s just been great.

You’ve talked a little bit about the “Technoself” approach (right hand triggering samples, left hand playing live drums). The entire album is recorded live. Why did you decide on this approach as opposed to producing it like a typical studio album?

Deantoni Parks: I was looking for a new way of imposing—because I’ve been doing this for so long, I get asked to play on sessions and it’s the same. Listen to the arrangement—you know it gets very old. People are writing the same way they always were. Everything seemed antiquated. I wanted something that sounds like it was done in post, but is done live with no overdubs. It’s a small part of the album, but it’s also the main part. For the record side of things, this was something I could play through without guidelines. There’s a freedom in that—when you’re good enough you can totally do that. You’re just streaming yourself and capturing it on tape or digitally. I really wanted that. I didn’t want to go back and do overdubs. I’ve done it before, I wanted something new. I’m very much into magic—Houdini and so forth. That’s a lot of the lure, but it also births very specific sounding material.

Does having your music so intrinsically tied to a philosophy pose any problems?

Deantoni Parks: Not yet.

It reminds me of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” and the sort of restraints he would put on his art to produce different results. Did this influence your process at all?

Deantoni Parks: Oh yeah, I was certainly familiar, but it wasn’t coming so much from him as from my own experience. I was feeling it so hard. But yeah, I was aware of those methods. Making “Technoself” the method was about that idea—a method I could apply to my album and to work with others. To me it’s completely functional, which makes it very unique.

Did you ever want to do something while recording or writing that you weren’t able to because of the “Technoself” method?

Deantoni Parks: It’s met all of the demands I’ve needed and more. Which is why I’m gonna stick with it and see what else it can bring.

Since Technoself is an album heavily influenced by the play between digital and the ‘real’—technology and human interaction—how do you view the ways in which your music is consumed?

Deantoni Parks: Ideally, I like to stumble into a concert or festival I didn’t know about and find an act to be amazing. That happened with HTRK out of Melbourne. I stumbled into this festival because I was doing stuff with John Cale and I had an off day. To me that’s the best. Obviously I go on Youtube and use the Internet heavily to scout out new music. But I like to do it the old fashioned way, to stumble across someone and be blown away. That makes me go and buy some of their work. I prefer that, but I get it any way I can. I love all the options. I really do.

What’s next for Deantoni Parks now that the reception towards Technoself has been so great?

Deantoni Parks: During times when I’m not finding music I started this project called We Are Dark Angels. It’s basically my writing company that I share with Nick Kasper. That’s kind of the main inspiration for Technoself as well. Taking the samples—we take our favorite artists and re-arrange things. It’s another method, a way for us to learn more about arrangements—to take a song and make it into whatever you want it to be. Some of the collection is online, but we have hundreds of records. That’s kind of my main influence right now. Mixed media really pushes me. That’s really important, getting inspiration from quoting. That’s what it’s there for. We’re a social species, let’s help each other get there.

Do you have plans for new releases?

Deantoni Parks: This first album was a test. I didn’t know how people were going to respond. But now, it’s on. I’m going to put out as much material as I possibly can. Making music is my most efficient drug.

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