Playing the drums expertly and cleanly comes easily to Australia-based percussionist Chloe Kim. She cut her teeth on the Jazz Studies Program at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and went on to complete her master’s in research in 2021. A versatile pro who is invested in many different kinds of music, she is active in several ensembles (a nine-piece all-female jazz group, Rainpatterns; a percussion trio, Ta Go Lak, incorporating Korean folk and Shamanic drumming traditions; a bass/drum duo; and drone/jazz/rock ensemble that highlights experimental music).
Kim adds a subtle shimmer through the fabric of the calming tone poem “As the Flow Cries” with Barney McAll’s Time Will Tell Quartet. And in the sultry “Emanation—Early Fog,” she swings real hard and pulls back with delicious tension, then lets it go gleefully, a rhythmic arrow aimed right at the heart of the song.
Besides the sense of total immersion in any piece she plays, she takes obvious joy in making art with others.
When did you start drums and why?
I started to play the drums when I was 10 years old. When I saw the drum set for the first time at church, I was mesmerized by the look and the size of it, so much so that even before hearing a single note from the instrument I told myself, “That’s it!”
Do you remember your first drum set?
The very first drum set I purchased was a dark green second-hand Sonor kit.
What other percussion instruments do you play?
I don’t play any classical percussion instruments, however, I do enjoy playing different types of bells and shakers. A few years ago, I also started to learn Korean traditional drum called janggu, which is a double-headed drum in an hourglass shape.
What is the most difficult part of learning drums?
One of the most crucial but challenging parts of learning the drum set is accepting that it takes a long time to train our bodies to coordinate specific movements. This may be an easy concept, but only up to when we have to move our arms in unison or one arm and one leg in unison. However, arranging them in different patterns and tempo, sometimes within the specific genres of music, takes a long time to polish. On top of that, drummers have to make sure the movements are ergonomic (so that we don’t get pains when playing the instrument), as well as taking care of the quality of the sound that gets produced on the drums.
So, more so than the literal part of learning coordination, accepting the fact that it takes a long time and that it requires a very serious, patient, enduring process, is what I found to be the biggest challenges of learning the drum set.
Who are some of your favorite drummers?
My recent favorite drummer is Buddy Rich. I did not realize until recently that his drumming, especially when it comes to solo drumming, reaches further than the genre of jazz music. His ability to maintain a high level of physical agility on the drum set while executing fast, accurate notes allows me to view further potential of the drum set. Rich’s solo drum compilation album is available to listen to under the title of The Solos (Live) (2014).
When and why did you get into jazz?
I was born and raised in South Korea. When I was 15 years old, I decided to come to Australia and as I was continuing to play the drums, I realized that the school I was attending at only allowed the option of taking either a classical music class or jazz. Knowing that I wanted to continue playing drums, I thought I would not get that opportunity in the classical orchestra. So I signed up for the jazz ensemble.
Little did I know then that this decision would take me on a very unexpected but life-changing, joyful, and grateful journey.
What is the most important thing you learned about drums in your formal education?
I learned that, after a certain period of time of learning the instrument, an artist must discover their own ways of expanding the creativity, personalized approaches, and technical ability, and leave the nest of their mentors; whether the mentors are teachers, favorite music, or idol musicians, we must leave.
I found every single note and musical decision from my long-term mentor Simon Barker so inspiring that after a few years of learning from him, I recognized myself (intentionally or not) trying to sound like him on the drum set. I think this was an innocent phenomenon given that his drumming was so influential, but definitely not a mature musical state to settle into. I find it challenging to clearly execute in words about this thing I did, but what I did was to consciously distance myself from the primary musical decisions and habits that I tended to go which reflected Simon’s drumming more so than mine. That distance allowed me the space to be honest with myself and the courage to discover rhythmic ideas from scratch.
It took me about a year of this training to confidently claim that my drum repertoire completely reached originality. From this point, I felt closer to the instrument itself and proud and attached to my own original ideas, which are an ongoing source for me to continue drumming.
How does the drummer not overwhelm or overpower the rest of the band?
I think the primary response to this question can be, “We watch out for the volume.” However, at the same time, once drummers reach to point where they can be honest with their musical decisions and trust that they are contributing rather than distracting from the music and the band, I don’t think it can ever overpower the band. From that point, drumming – even though it may be loud from time to time – will be a reliable “older sister” the band can have fun with but also be encouraged by.
If you were inspired by gospel and classical, how do these influences show up in your music?
I would say they do not directly show up in my drumming in a sense where anyone can point out a specific section and say, “Here it is! That’s the influence.” But I played gospel music every Sunday for an hour for 12 years, so I know, no matter what I do on the drums, I can never miss the beat.
My go-to playlists to listen to are string orchestra music. This makes me never dare to “hit” the drums, but “play” them like the strings that comforted me.
What inspires you when you compose? Do you write first for the drum voice?
When I practice certain materials, I tend to eventually find the most simplified version of how it can be practiced. It is so simplified that sometimes it sounds like nothing. If anyone walked past my practice room at this stage of my practice, they could say I was hardly touching the drums. These are the moments where I am most clear about what to do next. It is like squeezing a blueberry. It’s so small that it is hardly enough to just eat one, but when it’s squeezed, it creates a mess and its stain stays with us for such a long time.
I find that the most honest and quiet time on the drum set is the most inspiring stage for me to create new original ideas. And yes, when it comes to writing music for ensemble, I do have to work out tasks for the drums first.
How did you select the musicians in your various groups?
I am surrounded by an incredible pool of musicians in Australia. We have a very tight community and are aware of each other’s strengths. When I create new music, their sense of imagination in executing the sound and the textures of my music come across organically and clearly. I also picture how it would be to socialize with them while setting up and packing down the instruments. If the picture is looking warm, that is a yes to me as a new group.
Favorite part of being a professional jazz musician?
Once my student’s father told me that being a musician must be like “living a full life.” Though it was a very short conversation, the term “full life” struck me hard, and it’s stayed with me.
Ever since becoming a full-time freelance musician, I’ve had a different schedule every single day. I also get to travel to different cities, play music with new people as well as old friends, and enter various platforms to create different improvisations each time.
When I complete these tasks, at the end of each evening, I ask myself if I lived a full life that day. The answer is not “yes” every day, and that is okay; however, repetition of this process drives me closer to be clear about what will make a successful day into a full life. So I am grateful to my career for allowing honest self-reflection each day.
I am working on a new solo drum repertoire that will be presented for 100 hours in total!
For more information, visit www.chloekimdrums.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2022 Debbie Burke