“Sorrow is Better Than Laughter:” An Interview with MRR of the Drumetrics Drum Crew

Peter Holsin speaks with the founder of the San Diego collective about its origins in crate-digging and being "the Voltron Head" of his crew.
By    June 18, 2020

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Peter Holslin was an extra on the set of Django Strikes Again.

Nine years ago, Drumetrics founder Michael Raymond Russell was reeling from the recent theft of his music gear. His loft in San Diego had been cleared out in a robbery. He’d lost everything, including the Akai MPC he’d used to cut samples and tap out drum breaks for an ultra-rare, Holy Grail-esque 10” record released in 2008, which features a cameo appearance from Malcolm Catto of the Heliocentrics and delves into some of the most astonishing psychedelic funk ever put to wax. 

Using the MPC, MRR (as he’s known in his releases) spent years learning to make drum machine beats sound miraculously fluid and real—hence the name of one of his groups, a early-to-mid 2000s collaboration with The Gaslamp Killer dubbed MHE, or Machines Have Emotions. Now the machine was gone. Luckily, though, the thieves hadn’t taken his reel-to-reel tape recorder or his 1960’s all-steel drum kit. One morning, MRR woke up to sunlight shining in his eyes. It was glinting off the silvery finish of the kit’s tom-tom shells, bass drum and frame. 

That’s when it all struck a chord and I reflected on what got me into this music hobby in the first place,” MRR recalls. “It all started from digging for vinyl and searching for those solo drum breaks from all the 1960s-70s bands. So that reflection inspired me to simplify and focus more on just recording raw, analog drum productions.”

MRR was silent for some time after the life-shattering robbery, but five years ago he and his friends relaunched under a new name—Drumetrics. They’ve since put out a string of immaculately-designed, limited-run EPs, which routinely sell out like hotcakes as they get snapped up by a small but devoted fan base of beat heads, crate-diggers and record collectors. 

The collective’s newest effort is Heartz, a six-track 10” released on the titular Drumetrics label in March. (You can also listen to it on Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming services.) A collaboration between Drumetrics members MRR, ADB and DRB—aka producer Andrew David Barragan and drummer Danny Ray Barragan—Heartz is part of a series of themed EPs modeled on library records from the 1960s and 70s. The music and the design show a devotion to analog craft uncommon in this age of digital everything: The vinyl jacket has a “D”-shaped cutout, framing an inner sleeve that glimmers with chrome finish and an op-art style black-and-white swirl. 

“Since technically I am the Voltron head, I try to get the best out of the rest of the body—AKA the collective. We all get fueled from each other and old underground music that has ‘Character,’” MRR says, writing over email from San Diego, where he and the rest of the crew all met in high school and still live today. 

The original library records, which in recent years have spawned a devoted following among hip-hop producers and beatmakers, were usually recorded by little-known studio musicians and licensed by utilitarian labels for use in TV shows, films and radio spots. On Heartz, the cryptically-named trio follow in the footsteps of their anonymous forebears, laying down booming drums, haunted harpsichord, and smoky tremolo for themes to a ’60s Spaghetti Western that never existed. 

Unlike studio musicians of the past, this contemporary crew isn’t tethered to the rigid demands of a commercial production. They have no film director, programming managers, executives or shareholders to appease. So they end up venturing into lesser-explored valleys of rhythm and tone. Heartz is rich with empty space. Drummer DRB delivers a pocket rhythm but also works like an abstract impressionist painter, and the best parts of his performance are the measured pacing and small details—the weathered windup of a snare roll, the elemental contact of a stick against a cymbal. 

“I believe the best music from any producer comes from inspiration as opposed to contrived, forced production that typically is motivated by trends and money,” MRR says. He emphasizes that Drumetrics is a part-time pursuit, which lets him and his fellow drummer/producers focus on making the best music possible, rather than compromising for a paycheck. “We love the art so much, we don’t need to rely on it for income or any means of catering to money trends. It helps us to develop a consistent character of sound and design and motivates us to provide quality, limited product, rather than mass production.” 

It’s easy to come across purists and devotees to classic sounds these days—and the mere worship of old shit obviously doesn’t equate to good music. With Drumetrics, the love for analog production and raw drums connects to more elemental and spiritual inspirations. MRR says the title of Heartz is a mash-up of the words “Hertz,” “Ear” and “Heart,” alluding to the way sound frequencies travel through the body and merge with everyday life. Released nine years after his fateful robbery and five years since the start of Drumetrics, Heartz embraces the stark melancholy of Spaghetti Western soundtracks in part to find something redeeming in the darkness. 

“The idea was to focus on the melancholy aspect because it is humbling and it helps reflect on life more,” MRR says. He quotes a line from Ecclesiastes 7:3—“Sorrow is better than laughter because a sad face is good for the heart.” 

“In other words,” MRR explains, “we can be humbled by lowliness to help avoid being prideful and selfish.” 

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