A Discussion of Percussion from the Drum Kit of Florian Arbenz

Florian Arbenz 1 Daniel Infanger

The Swiss ensemble VEIN starts “No Change is Strange” with a sneak attack from the drums, courtesy of Florian Arbenz. Fluidly segueing from small taps to crashes to using all his drums, round-robin, Florian’s prolonged intro is inventive, playful and precise. Suddenly, in come the piano and bass in bold unison (though several octaves apart), then the bass toys with the drums in short bursts and traded riffs.

Inspired by George Gershwin’s song of a similar name, the tune “Summertime for Percussion” has a wild approach to the 30’s standard, with a conga or steel-drum type of vibe. Obviously, VEIN has a sense of humor.

Florian gives us lush brushes in “The Masquerade is Over” and pushes the limits by speeding ahead with the bubbly “No We Can’t.”

You might call VEIN surprising, unpredictable and flexible, and that it’s impossible to box them in.

You’d be right.

When did you learn drums?

I started at four years old, playing drums and piano. My father was a classical pianist, my mother was a cellist, so my wish to play the piano was quite obvious and I’d guess my wish to play the drums was the expression of my own personality.

What attracted you to drums?

I loved the groove, the power and the way of dancing with this instrument (and I still love it)! I remember an early moment in my childhood (I was three or four years old) when I started to cry once we missed a drummer‘s performance because we were late. So I guess I took it quite seriously even back then.

What items are in your kit?

I studied classical percussion and played a lot of contemporary classical music. So I was always involved with special sounds. Basically I deal with a regular drum set, as I’m touring a lot.

What does your band name VEIN refer to?

It’s kind of funny. When you have to decide about a name right after starting a band, you don’t know yet where this all will lead. VEIN refers to the blood and the heart, but you also can call something a humorous VEIN, a serious VEIN, etc. We thought the name fits our music since one of the ideas of the group is to play with various musical concepts.

What we didn’t know or expect was that we would get in trouble with some DJs and hard rock groups with the same name once we started to distribute our music internationally.

Who are the members of your band?

Michael Arbenz, the piano player, is my twin brother. Obviously we have a close relationship and have played music together since childhood.

Thomas Lähns, the bass player, is like a third brother. We’ve worked together a lot over the last 10 years. He takes an important role and makes a very strong statement between the two of us.

Most surprising element of playing together – of the combined sound?

During the good old jazz days, the individual statement of a musician was very important. Most of the great jazz players can be recognized easily by their sound. Of course we feel deeply connected to this tradition, but as European musicians, we also try to have a very specific sound in our trio, the VEIN sound. This is one of our most important goals. It’s almost impossible to organize a sub for one of us. If one of us isn’t available for a gig, we can’t play.

On the other hand, we have to leave the space for some unexpected elements. I think it’s also a lot about musical communication. We try to have present different ideas during a gig, and this keeps the music fresh for us.

How did you first meet sax player David Liebman?

We all feel very deeply connected to jazz history and love and respect the great players. We try to give this music our own European touch and also try to lead it into the future.

But also, we have a great wish to perform with the elder cats and learn from them. That’s why we perform now over 20 years with Greg Osby and Glenn Ferris.

Dave Liebman was on our wish-list for a long time, and we’re very happy and proud that we have regularly performed and recorded with him for the past eight years.

Of course Dave (and also Greg and Glenn) make a very strong statement on the stage. So you really have to be on top of your game to be able to follow them. That’s a wonderful task and inspiration. It’s also great to have this very direct connection to jazz history!

We’re very happy that in the jazz business it’s so easy to get in touch with them. We just wrote them a letter 20 years ago, sent them our music, and they liked it, so we started our collaboration. It was very easy!

What is the jazz scene like where you live (Switzerland)?

Actually, I don’t know! Switzerland is a very small country, divided in four languages/parts, so we started playing in Germany/Austria right away. Right now we mainly perform in Europe, but also worldwide. Of the 60 gigs we perform each year, we play around four or five in Switzerland. So I would rather consider us as part of the European scene.

There are a lot of great groups in Switzerland and everyone has a specific and different sound.

So I think, there is not a typically Swiss sound per se; the touring groups are very diverse and this is a great thing! 

What are some little-known or funky techniques you like to use?

I’m a rhythm-guy, and also a sound-guy. I love the drums, but I don’t want to just copy the American cats. I think in Europe, because of the contemporary music and free-improvisation, there is a big tradition in sound. So I try to use those techniques also on the drums, including dynamics, open and closed sounds, dark and bright sounds, etc.

Have you invented any moves?

You know, invention is a very very noble word…most of the guys actually combine techniques in an intelligent and innovative way rather than inventing something.

I use a lot of different techniques, but there is one thing I never heard any other drummer do‚ ’til now: I use the same flat stroke that the conga players use in order to reach a different note on the toms. I just do it with the sticks, and I use it quite a lot, as I get two different notes out of the toms (especially the smaller ones), giving me many more possibilities to play melody.

How much embellishment do you like to use?

I’m a drummer and I love the drum set as an instrument. So I only add something if I really feel it needs something special. Example: Lately I use a small woodblock as a back-beat in a bass feature, since I feel this high note has a very nice color in relation to all the low bass notes.

How do you keep it all straight in your mind when you execute a particularly difficult passage?

It’s funny, I was once part of some research where a scientist wanted to find out where the rhythms in a professional drummer is located in the brain. They found out that drummers memorize rhythms with the same part of their brain that language is located.

And I really memorize a lot of parts as language, especially difficult passages which become kind of a language for me!

I don’t count the timing of those parts, but feel the vibes of the unspoken words.

Which percussionists have most influential on your playing?

There are a lot of drummers I admire!

Of course all the old cats: I admire Papa Jo Jones, Max Roach, Joe Morello, and also Peter Erskine and Al Foster for their way of playing melodies on the drums.

I admire Elvin Jones for his power, Tony Williams for the way he plays the cymbals, Paul Motian and Billy Higgins for their sense of supporting the music.

But I also follow music of younger cats like Eric Harland, Chris Dave or European guys like Stefan Pasborg.

I try to transcribe and understand, then I try to find a way to include the things I like in my own way of drumming.

Are you still into classical music?

I stopped playing classical music because the way I want to express myself in music is through creativity/ improvisation and not through reproduction.

But of course there is a lot of classical music I love. Actually, “Bolero” is one of the grooviest tunes in classical music and it was a lot of fun to arrange it! I created the rhythmic concept and Michael did the wonderful horn parts.

We created some space for improvisation in our Ravel project, but a lot of parts are also quite fixed, which is because we had to deal with those wonderful compositions which we didn’t want to destroy, but rather treat them with a lot of respect.

Actually, playing the VEIN version of the Bolero can be compared to play some big band charts: Once it’s rehearsed well it doesn’t need any specific preparation.

Why are you so drawn to Ravel’s music?

As our parents and the grandfathers of Thomas are classical musicians, the music of Ravel was present during our childhoods. I also like the jazzy touch and the harmonies of Ravel’s music very much!

Ravel also fit our musical ideas. I cant imagine arranging Bach or Beethoven!

Andy Sheppard was an excellent addition to this performance! What qualities made him the right choice?

Andy is a real gentleman, very poetic and gentle. This makes fit perfectly with Ravel! Andy also lived in Paris for over 10 years and knows the French mentality perfectly. Aside from that, he’s just one of the best sax players I ever met.

Are there other classical masterpieces you would like to approach with a jazz sensibility?

Not right now, but we just arranged some VEIN tunes for symphonic orchestra and big band and we’re looking forward to playing them in concert in Latvia, Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Turkey.

Highlights of your tour in Europe and Asia?

Of course it’s a highlight to play in such a well-known club as Ronnie Scott’s in London or famous festivals like the Montreux Jazz Festival.

It was also a highlight to have an extremely good meal in Tokyo and meet some great people and audiences in Russia. We also joined some crazy parties in Lithuania.

The real highlight was visiting so many different countries, meeting different people and playing in front of many different audiences.

Biggest difference in jazz audiences around the world?

I would say the German/Swiss/Austrian audiences are maybe not so hip, but very attentive. Audiences in eastern Europe are very young, which is great, and audiences in China or Japan can be pretty crazy. We also had some wonderful experiences in Latin America.

Most recent CD?

“VEIN Plays Ravel” (September 2017). Our new project “Symphonic Bop” will be released this spring.

Do you go for an overall theme when you make an album?

It depends. Even if each song stands alone, we try to have a connection between the songs.

I would say it’s an extremely difficult thing to find a great flow over a whole album!

Your favorite tracks on it?

I usually write around 40% of a VEIN album.

-On “VEIN Plays Ravel” I’m quite proud of our version of “Bolero,” where I did the rhythmic concept.

-I also think that my arrangements of  “Pavane” and “Menuet” (featuring Andy Sheppard) worked out well.

I also like all the other songs. We’re a very democratic group (as we’re Swiss) and one of the agreements of VEIN is that we work as long on an arrangement as needed until every one of us is happy with it.

What is the most challenging part of being a drummer today?

You can more or less divide drummers in two parts: drummers who play as a sideman and those who play in a lot of different groups. Unfortunately, that’s not my way, as I quit the well-paid classical business to be a creative musician who expresses his own ideas. I’m more the kind of leader with my own musical ideas.

One difficulty is that we have so much information, it’s hard to choose what you want to use for your drumming and what to leave out.

Another difficulty is that just being a musician is not enough nowadays. You also have to be a social media pro, a booking agent, etc.

How do you get a gig in a well-known club, and does it require a lot of patience and persistence?

VEIN, which is my main project, is a very independent and free-thinking project. Up to now, we haven’t found a major label or management company that agreed to leave the main musical ideas to us.

VEIN is kind of an independent startup, and without the channels of the “big industry” it’s very difficult to get a gig in a well-known club.

But on the other hand, we have the freedom to develop our music in the direction we want, and that’s a very crucial thing for us.

How do you differentiate yourselves on social media?

Actually, I think that I’m quite a good drummer and I’m also able to compose, do booking etc., but I’m VERY bad in social media. I’m extremely happy to have some professional help for this!

How do you feel different when you are playing with VEIN and then with a larger ensemble like a big band?

Playing with VEIN feels like chatting with family members: very familiar and easy-going. When playing with a big band, I have to stay in my role as a drummer in order to keep the band together.

Your CD-in-progress?

We are working hard on our new project, “Symphonic Bop,” where we arrange VEIN tunes for symphonic orchestra and big band.

We will record this autumn and release it in spring 2019. We are not yet sure which tunes we will record and which exact lineup we will use.

NEW! VEIN meets RAVEL in this funky urban ballet!

Other comments?

Thanks for the interview, very nice and interesting questions, I must say!

For more information, visit www.florianarbenz.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Florian Arbenz. Second photo (c) Daniel Infanger.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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