Indie rock is hard to pin down to a single set of characteristics. At least to me. But great drumming comes in a lot. Powerful and intricate. Very often an intrinsic part of a song's construction.
Logan Kroeber of The Dodos
The Dodos are a San Francisco based duo - Logan Kroeber on drums and Meric Long on guitar and vocals. Their sound grew out of a desire to blend Long's training in West African Ewe drumming and Kroeber's experience in metal bands, creating music in which, according to Wikipedia, "drumming could be a center role and help bring out the syncopated rhythms coming out of the acoustic guitar."
On listening to Black Night, the opening track of their 2011 album No Color, notice to the central role the drums play.
(The original studio recording is beautifully clean, and my favourite version of the song I've heard, but if you want to watch Kroeber in action, you might want to watch this live-in-the-studio version.)
Around the 2:00 mark Kroeber does this thing I can't get out of my head, nor describe, but to me it's the signature element of the song.
I enlisted the help of my drummer friend Jason Overy, and here's his explanation:
"From what I can hear it sounds like a fast 1/8 note and 1/16 note groove. With the cymbal (which is actually two cymbals stacked one on top of the other for a cool effect) playing on beats 2+ and 4 e + (sounds like 'two-and' 'four-ee-and') it's played quite fast so sounds kinda like a triplet. Also his feel kind of slides back and forth between a straight two sixteenths and an eighth note grouping on beat three to a triplet grouping on beat four. It is very subtle and quite common in African music."
Matt Frazier of Local Natives
Pitchfork described this LA band's sound as "afropop-influenced guitars with hyperactive drumming and kooky three-part harmonies."
Drums are the first thing you hear in World News, from the band's debut album Gorilla Manor. A simple steady beat from a drum, and a simple bit of guitar strumming. There's your backbone, song.
As it progresses, more and more layers come in. Listen to those three-part harmonies. Dig those afropop influenced guitars. But pay special attention to that drumming, which I wouldn't describe as hyperactive. It's very energetic, but completely precise. Full of subtleties and flourishes that add to the whole.
(again - to see what's happening, including the fact that the drumming is actually coming from two guys, watch this live version)
The thing about specifically paying attention to the drumming is that it lets you hear more of the song. These subtleties, excellent as they are, can blend into the whole, and we're not used to actively listening to the drums (or anything, usually, other than the singing, and maybe the guitar, or whatever plays the main hook). But if you focus on them, you still hear the singing and the guitar playing (how can you not?), and you get this extra layer too, the exquisite artistry of sticks hitting the skins, which are just as much a part of the song.
Joules Scott-Key of Metric
My life has a before and an after, marked by seeing Metric perform Dead Disco in their encore in an arena show last year.
They're a Toronto based band, though Scott-Key hails from Flint, Michigan. He joined Metric in 2001, helping turn them from a guitar, synth and drum machine combo into… well, what they are now. Which is hard to pin down. Indie rock, with elements of new wave and electro-pop, and guitars that might be powerful enough to blast down the walls of a barn, or sweet and cool enough to seduce a nun. And then there's Emily Haines's vocals. Lord...
This is a much extended live version of the studio version of the song, and a good approximation of what I saw them do. It takes two videos to capture it. If you're willing to put in the time, you'll hear the full dynamic range of this song, and Scott-Key's drumming. He's right at the centre. Playing a strong, powerful riff off the top, but at times dipping through light, almost jazzy sections, with the whole band dialling it down with ease and grace. In playing these subtler sections he doesn't sound like he's keeping a lid on a seething, soon-to-burst energy, but that the song was only ever meant to be quiet and intimate. And then right on cue, you're back into wild power, like a waterfall diverted upwards with a keg of dynamite.
Robbie Kuster of Patrick Watson
Patrick Watson is the name of the guy on piano and vocals, and the name of the band. In concert, Robbie Kuster's drum kit is at the front of the stage, opposite Watson's piano, and so it should be.
This WNYC studio recording of Beijing, a highlight from their 2009 album Wooden Arms, (they do two other songs too) showcases Kuster at his inventive best (notice the sound he creates with some overturned pots?), playing something you almost never hear in indie rock: a drum solo. I'm not even sure if it's accurate to call it a solo, as the piano comes in before long, and we're right back into the song, never having left, really, with the drumming remaining just as intricate for the remainder. And it was before that too.
Instrumental passages seem to be a convention of indie rock. Excellent musicianship, exploring the melodic possibilities of the song as part of the song. Something important would be lost if most indie rock songs were simply played on guitar or piano. The band's cohesiveness and musicianship are essential elements, and yet you rarely hear a solo, or anything wanky.
John Convertino of Calexico
If I had to name a favourite Indie Rock drummer, it'd be Mr. John Convertino (who I actually interviewed a few years ago) of Calexico. He and Joey Burns founded the band in 1997, having played in other bands together previous to that. They relocated from LA to Tucson to get away from a world focussed on MAKING IT and to simply create good music, which they've been doing steadily ever since (their 2012 album Algiers is killer)(not to mention their 2006 album Garden Ruin)(or 1998's The Black Light)(or 2003's Feast of Wire).
They've added other members to the band since the late 90s, but Burns and Convertino remain the core. They still do session work on other albums. And they sometimes release albums with just the two of them playing. Drums and guitar. They make it sound like all you'd ever need.
Convict Pool is the title track of a 2004 EP. Burns singing and strumming a nylon-stringed guitar, Convertino on drums, playing with mallets, creating an appealing, sort of rolling sound. The crescendoes in the song happen with Burns' vocals and Convertino's drums simultaneously, creating bursts of emotion and passion that tear me in two every time. In a song about skateboarding.
I really could make this an impossibly long entry (if I haven't already), if I weren't conscious of the reader's limited time, so I'll leave it at that. But if your appetite has been whetted, check out Squalor Victoria by The National (especially a live version), Reckoner by Radiohead (the basement sessions version is a real favourite), Ambling Alp by Yeasayer (two drummers!), any of Martin Dosh's work with Andrew Bird - or his solo stuff, anything by the Black Keys, Get Some by Lykke Li (I dare you not to bop to that beat for the rest of the day once you've listened to it), You Speak my Language by Morphine, Follow me Down by UNKLE, and… and… and…