Feature/Interview

In lockdown with… drummer Graham Costello

Drummer Graham Costello’s STRATA emerged from the vibrant Glasgow scene and have developed a distinctive style, blending rock-influenced minimalism with forthright improvisation, through a monthly residency in the city’s musician-friendly Bar Bloc. Formed in 2016, the band self-released its first album Obelisk in February 2019, and subsequently signed with Gearbox Records, who just released the single, Lyra. The STRATA line-up includes former Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year, guitarist Joe Williamson and pianist Fergus McCreadie alongside Costello, who explains what life has been like for him during lockdown.

Graham Costello. Photo credit FIN

First album you purchased as a “jazz musician”?

Great question. I’d bought many jazz albums before I would’ve categorised myself specifically as a “jazz musician”. I guess that came when I entered into jazz education back in 2012, so the first album I bought after that would have been Drums Unlimited, the solo drum album by Max Roach. At that time I knew of his amazing playing in an ensemble setting, but I wanted to really dive in and study his language as a solo drummer. What a legend Max is. His vocabulary and, especially, his mobility around the instrument were most inspiring to me. I eventually went on to learn and transcribe his piece “The Drum Also Waltzes”. It taught me so much.

What are you listening to right now?

I’ve been trying to absorb some new language into my playing, so I’ve been listening to a bunch of varied stuff. Specifically, I’ve been diving deep into some of my favourite electronic artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre, then getting into Squarepusher and Flying Lotus. Lots of cool concepts in all their music. I’ve started practising yoga every day since lockdown, and I’ve been listening to a new album (or sometimes podcasts) as I do it. Recently I  listened to Young Fathers’ album Cocoa Sugar and, on a friend’s recommendation, Radiohead’s album King of Limbs. Very inspiring.

Most memorable incident/event in your career or education?

I was totally new to playing jazz when I started studying it at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland here in Glasgow. I had been so deep into what you could maybe call the “independent/DIY” scene, with music ranging from noise and math rock, to post rock and other more heavy music – the point being, it was all very high energy. So, in my initial time at university, I was trying to suppress my own language that I had developed as a self-taught drummer over the previous 15 years. When playing jazz, I was trying to be Tony, trying to be Elvin, never really Graham. I was putting my “jazz hat” on to play jazz, then at other gigs I’d put on my “noise rock” hat. I thought I perhaps wouldn’t be accepted in the jazz world otherwise.

Then, around 3rd year, or maybe the start of 4th year, it finally clicked that I should be trying to marry my two worlds together. Playing jazz drums vs rock drums is totally like playing another instrument, but that didn’t mean I had to sacrifice how I naturally expressed myself. I stopped thinking “what would Tony or Elvin do here?”, and instead just chilled the hell out and did what felt right to me. It took a bit of time to properly manifest that marriage of the two sounds, but it is hands down the most important thing to happen in my musical life yet. That realisation not only helped me discover the drummer I wanted to be, but the composer I wanted to be, too, and that I wanted to lead my own band with that exact same philosophy – hence STRATA. I could probably root many of my later achievements solely on that realisation.

Instrument you wish you played?

Piano, without a doubt. I write and base all my music on the piano, so I can play enough to interpret my ideas and concepts. My favourite instrument sonically is either baritone sax or bass clarinet, but I really wish I could properly play the piano. If I could substitute my ability on the drums straight to the piano, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Has this time in isolation inspired any new creative ideas?

I’m still finishing off the compositions for STRATA’s upcoming album on Gearbox Records. Funnily enough, I’ve technically “finished it” about 4 times, but (and this will resonate with many artists) it didn’t feel quite “finished” yet. So, having this time has allowed even more writing and for me to truly ask myself what I want to say with our next album. I know I’ll have to draw the line at some point, but I believe this time has allowed me to compose an even better album than if this pandemic had not happened. Also, I luckily have a solo practice space, so I’ve been able to practise my instrument tonnes. I’m an avid practiser, and I have many drummer friends who unfortunately can’t play their instrument at the moment, so I count myself very lucky. I know at some point, too, I want to do my own solo drum project, so I’ve been developing my concept for that. I won’t do it until it’s right, though.

What are you most looking forward to once this is over?

As a musician, the obvious and true answer is live music. Playing it and going to shows. I can be guilty at times of letting the fact that I’m involved in music all day affect how often I go to gigs. But honestly, go to any gig here in Glasgow and there’s always something you will leave inspired by. However, I’m most looking forward to my dog, Fin, getting to see the other family dogs again for the first time in ages. My parents have three cockapoos, Tully, Dexter and Porry, and my brother and sister-in-law have a wee scotty MacCallan. Dogs are the best.

A chance to plug a friend’s music right now…

Trio TYR are a great new group to emerge from the Glasgow scene. They play very ambient Nils Petter Molvær-meets-Earth-meets-Radiohead music – awesome stuff. A drummer who has inspired me a lot over the years is the American Zach Hill. He’s an unbelievable pioneer in noise drumming, and in my opinion created a completely new way to interpret the instrument. People might know his band Death Grips, but his solo work and drumming in other bands like Hella is just unbelievable. It’s criminal to me that many jazz drummers haven’t heard him and his utterly unique voice. I think some jazz musicians can disappear down the jazz rabbit hole too much, and end up being guilty of not listening to music outside the jazz art form – something that I think is integral to helping build your own musical horizons. Everyone is different I guess, though.

LINK: Find out more on STRATA’s website

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