Excerpted from Bang Bang Crash: A Memoir
By Nic Brown
Athenaeum photo by Marina Chavez. Courtesy of Atlantic Records.
It’s 3:00 a.m. and I’m back on the edge of a bathtub, naked and sweaty and tired. This is in a Motel 6 after the show. Or it’s in a Budget Inn. Or maybe an Econo Lodge. Or all them, actually. This happens in them all.
I open the faucets—all the way, both knobs—and the air starts to fill up with steam. I can still see the bathwater, though. I can feel the force of it pummeling the plastic tub beneath me. And I know what sound it is making—a hard roaring hiss. But that isn’t the sound that I hear. What I hear is a low muffled hum, like a pillow has been pressed firmly against both of my ears.
I wonder if this is what a drug addict feels like, looking at a tooth that’s just fallen out, or some other evidence of self-destruction. Blood on the sink. Track marks. I don’t know. At least I’m not a drug addict. For me, though, this difference between what I know I should be hearing and what I am actually hearing is my own nightly proof of self-destruction, because it’s a reminder of how hard I am hitting the drums. And though I am aware that I am playing my instrument too loudly—and that it is destroying not only my ears, but the very songs I am performing on—I cannot find a way to stop.
I pinpoint one afternoon as the catalyst for all this. It happens a few months earlier, in the spring, before the bathwater loses its hiss. We’re at sound check in San Antonio, at the Sunken Garden Theater, playing the first of a few shows with Foo Fighters, and while I’m indifferent to the band—they’re fine—I am curious about their drummer. The front man is Dave Grohl, after all, who played drums in Nirvana, so I want to see who Nirvana’s drummer has hired to be his own drummer. The guy’s name is Taylor Hawkins, and up on the riser before me, he looks like a surfing supermodel—all blond hair and jawbone and sinew.
“Snare drum,” the soundman says.
And then Taylor Hawkins hits his snare drum, and that’s all that it takes. One note. He’s just hit the drum so hard, and with such elegance and explosive grace, that at once I think, That’s what I’ll do. I’ll just start hitting harder. Because at this moment in my life, I’m desperate for any new inspiration, and within that void Taylor Hawkins’s one loud note on the snare drum has just appeared and it sounds utterly thrilling.
What has happened to me is that the bands I’ve loved in the past—including my own—have begun to lose their allure. It’s like I’ve just started thinking about being unfaithful to them, unable to resist an attraction to others. My friends at Atlantic, our record label, have picked up on this development at least a little bit, because already they know I don’t want them to send me free rock CDs anymore. I want the weird stuff now, the arty stuff, the difficult and strange stuff. Philip Glass’s score to Dracula. Olu Dara’s old man songs. Cesária Évora singing about Cape Verde in some language I don’t know. The Kronos Quartet. Caetano Veloso. I even take the CD discards from radio stations we visit, stuff that’s too weird to air, like a double album of artists reading Edgar Allan Poe stories or an album from a band named Skeleton Key whose drummer plays pieces of trash.
My own band Athenaeum is nothing like these acts. We’re a pop band. A good one, but my passion for the project has faded. It’s like that period of a love affair when you know the relationship is dying, yet still you search for some way to revive it. And this is when I see Taylor Hawkins. This is when I decide to hit hard.
It’s a summer afternoon. Bright sunlight bears down on a crowd of thousands. This is a few months later and we’re onstage at an amphitheater in Indianapolis, in the middle of the first chorus of the first song.
By this point, I’ve been hitting the drums so hard that I’ll find a spray of blood across the snare drum some nights. My fingers have blistered. And the bathwater has just begun to sound muffled at night. Still, a minor thrill has returned to my performances because of it, and other drummers have started to offer compliments. I even read an article recently in which the drummer of another band said his favorite drummers are “Taylor Hawkins from the Foo Fighters, and Nic from Athenaeum.” So as my enthusiasm for our band’s music continues to decrease, I keep hitting harder.
I’m not thinking about any of that right now, though. What I’m thinking about are my drumsticks, which are slipping out of my hands, and my bass drum, which is sliding away from me because I’m playing it like I’m trying to kill it.
Mark, our singer, looks over his shoulder and mouths the words “slow down.”
I tell myself to forget the drumsticks, to ignore the bass drum. That I need to focus on the song that I’m playing. That I have to listen to the needs of the band. I decrease our tempo, hoping to bring it down to the right speed, but after playing only another verse or so, Mark turns around and says now it’s too slow.
It is the same thing that happened the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. But no matter what, I can’t find the right tempo.
From time to time I hear about baseball pitchers who get “the yips,” a condition where they can no longer control their pitches. They try to throw a strike down the middle and instead hit the backstop. Their curveball won’t curve. A sinker will rise. It’s a classic performance dysfunction based on overthinking, and I believe what is happening to me during this time is something like that. I think I’ve gotten the yips.
It’s clear to me even while it is happening that my heavy hitting is part of the problem. It has ruined my technique, which has thrown off my feel, and in turn completely messed with my sense of tempo. It would be as if one dancer in a troupe suddenly started to move with the most extreme motions possible, all while not listening to the music. Of course he would be out of sync with the others. But even though I understand this, I still cannot bring myself to stop hitting the drums so hard, because if I give that up, then what will be left for me? It feels like the only part of the music that can still bring me joy.
During the rest of the show, Mark keeps turning around, telling me my tempos are off, just like he has for weeks, and I keep trying to fix them and fail, just like I have for weeks, until finally, at the end of the set, my confidence is so shot that I just count us in to a song at the wrong tempo on purpose, hoping somehow it will be right.
I open my eyes, still filled with dread. In the dream, Mark kept looking over his shoulder, again and again, telling me the tempos were off. It is a spring morning. March. The windows are open. I can hear children across the street at Guy B. Phillips Middle School screaming as they get picked up by their parents. Then I realize it isn’t morning. It’s the middle of the afternoon.
I’m home from the tour now, but for weeks tempos have still been the first thing on my mind. I lay in my bed like this each day, staring at the ceiling, dreading the next show. This morning, though, something has broken. I get out of bed, determined to find some way to release myself from the cycle.
I pull a file from my desk. In it are two of my old college acceptance letters. One from Princeton and one from Columbia, such thrilling messages to have received when they first came. I feel a sadness as I hold them in my hands now, though. It was five years ago that they were mailed to me, and at the time I said no. I did take a one-year deferral from Columbia, even convincing them to let me stretch it out for a second year, but I never called back after that. Now I feel like a fool.
The Princeton letter has one word at the top, printed in bold: YES! I wonder if the phone number on the letterhead is still even in service, and if it is, what someone who isn’t in high school might say to the person who answers. I read recently about the singer for the band Weezer going to Harvard, though, and it has given me the idea that college might still be a possibility for me. So I pick up the phone and dial.
“Hello,” I say, trying to sound both like an adult who is above all this, while at the same time a student who is very interested in attending. I’m not sure what either is supposed to sound like. “I got in there a few years back but have actually been working as a musician...” I pause here in hopes the woman on the other end might ask for more detail. She remains silent. “And it looks like I’ll have some time this fall, so I was thinking about reapplying.”
“Got in when?” she says.
“Wow. OK. Yeah, well, if you got in once, I guess that’s a good sign, but... Can you hold for a second?”
“Sure,” I say, because what else do I have to do? I watch the middle schoolers climb into their parents’ cars.
“OK,” she says, coming back. She sounds like she has information now. Her voice is confident and assured. “So, what you’ll need to do first is take the SATs again. Those scores expire after four years... ”
And then she keeps talking, but I stop listening after “SAT.” Take the SAT again? I’m not taking the SAT again. That would be a disaster. The phone call comes to an end in a blur, and by the time I hang up, I’m already mourning the dream.
The Columbia letter is still in front of me, though. And they have a phone number too. Why not, I think, and I dial.
“Yeah, you have to reapply,” the Columbia officer says. She’s all business.
“OK, thanks, yeah,” I say. I came to this conversation pre-defeated.
But then she says, “If you deferred, though, I don’t know, maybe you still have a file? What’s your name again?”
“Nic Brown. Nicholas Brown.”
“Let me see if I can pull it.”
As I wait, I stare at the last students getting picked up out on the street. The kids who I attended middle school with have all already graduated from college by now, I think. Not many musicians I know ever went, though. At least not all the way through. Maybe one or two.
“Nicholas?” the officer says, picking back up. “I actually have your file right here, and I have good news. Looks like you’re still enrolled.”
She laughs. “Yeah.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you can come in the fall.”
I experience one of those rare moments that sends me forward in time, even while it is happening. I see myself in the future, thinking about how I’ll remember this woman’s words as she speaks them. How I will tell people it is the best news I’ve ever received.
“So,” I say, “I can just come in the fall?”
It’s unclear to me if I have to tell this woman my intentions or not at this very moment, but I’m afraid of losing my chance, so I say, “I’d like to do that.”
The band’s calendar is booked with a long stretch of waiting. The new record won’t be out for months. I tell Mark and Alex I’m going to school in the meantime. That I can travel to shows, come home for rehearsal if I need to. It’s New York. Easy for me to get in and out of. They’re fine with it. We aren’t playing much at all during this stretch, so it really doesn’t matter where I am. After one semester, I’ll just take a leave again and go back on tour.
I start riding the Amtrak back and forth, from Durham to Penn Station, well before the semester. It’s an eleven-hour ride, but I have nothing else on my schedule. I’m making the move mentally, dreaming the city’s streets even while I am on them. At home, it feels like every aspect of my life has been taking up so much room. My drumsticks, my tempos, my fear of the next show. My brain is overcrowded with it all. In the city, though, vast spaces seem to open up around me, limitless room in which I can look away from all of that.
One day, while staying with my old road manager, Barrett, in his apartment on West 52nd Street, I run into an acquaintance from Greensboro, a guitarist named Alec who lives in the city now. I ask him who he’s been playing with.
“Band called Skeleton Key,” he says.
I almost gasp. It’s one of the groups I’ve been listening to, a band so strange that, when I played their album for my friends in Chapel Hill who were into weird music, they all seemed to think it was too weird even for them. They hated it.
“I love that band,” I say.
“Really?” Alec says. He seems surprised I know who they are. The band is on Capitol but about as unknown as a major label act can be. Still, they were nominated for a Grammy once, though it wasn’t for music—it was for best album artwork, a footnote that seems a perfect encapsulation of their appeal, because to me the whole thing feels more like an art project than a band.
Alec gets a funny look on his face as he takes in my excitement. He raises an eyebrow.
“Actually, we do need a drummer,” he says.
Photo of Nic Brown courtesy of the author
I don’t go to the first Skeleton Key rehearsal telling them anything more than I’m going to be in New York for a few months and could possibly play a few shows if they needed. Still, I’m a fan of their music, something I can’t say about most of the bands I’ve been sharing stages with. I’m excited at the prospect of even being in the same room with them.
Before we rehearse, though, I struggle to learn all the parts. This is before YouTube or anything, so I can’t see how they were performed. I only have the CD to puzzle it out, and truly, I know next to nothing about the band. All I have is their music, and the drum parts are mystifying. Some sound like they’re played on a drum set, some on pieces of trash, and most an unusual combination of the two. A lot of it sounds like scrap metal. I work out ways to fake the trash parts on my drum rims, the bells of cymbals, and even the sides of the drums themselves, putting in what I know is way too much time figuring out all the strange sticking patterns that they require. The parts are highly unusual. Most of all, though, I’m terrified my tempos will be off.
I meet the band at a rehearsal space in Dumbo, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge, which you can see from the windows. The drums are classic rehearsal space junk. Funky heads, weird angles, half-broken hardware. Because of my yips, though, I’m already so uncomfortable behind my own drums that the idea of having to play other ones, especially crappy ones that sound different, look different, and feel different, seems almost impossible.
The singer, a tall man named Erik who has the smiling face of a kind Scandinavian farmer, is wearing vintage leather overalls made for Swedish motorcycle policemen. Or maybe it’s Norwegian motorcycle policemen. Danish? I can’t remember. Somewhere distant and cold. He owns the look. He seems utterly calm and cool and unlike anyone I have ever met before, and when I learn he’s been playing with Yoko Ono and John Cale, it makes perfect sense.
We start the first song, but after only a few bars I find both Alec and Erik looking at me so strangely that I stop.
“What?” I say.
“You’re doing both parts?” Erik says.
“Parts of what?”
“The trash and the drums?”
“Cause the trash guy played the part with the bell.”
“But the drums are just hat and the bass.”
And then it becomes clear: This is why the parts had been so hard for me to learn—the band had two drummers. One on the set, the other on trash. I had no idea. I’d learned the parts of two drummers at once.
“Oh,” I say, mortified. “OK. Yeah. I’ll just play the drum set part then.”
So we try it again, with me playing half of the part I prepared, but it doesn’t feel very good.
“Actually, just do what you were doing before,” Erik says.
So I go back to my first part, and Erik and Alec almost start laughing at all the insane patterns I’ve worked out. It’s a bit of a drumming freak show. It sounds pretty good, though, and as the hour passes, I find that I’m not thinking about the strange kit I’m playing at all. I’m just playing. And while I’m hitting the drums hard, I’m not forcing anything like I had been with Athenaeum. It’s not until well after we’re done that I consider my tempos. They had been fine.
I tell Alex, our bass player, when I come home for Thanksgiving. I call him first, asking if we can talk. By the time I get to his house, I can tell he already knows what I’m going to say.
“I think I’m going to keep going to college,” I say.
I’ve rehearsed it all in the car. I never use the word quit. Maybe my drum tech, Jeremy, can fill in, I say. It’ll be fine, we agree. Alex is totally understanding. We even laugh about things. This is why I told him first, though, because I knew he would make it easy for me. I’ve used him as a trial run. Mark is the one I am worried about. Not that I’m concerned Mark will get angry—he’s one of the most even-tempered people I know—but he’s the one who I started the band with. He’s the one I dreamed each step of this journey with, from playing my eighth-grade dance to signing a record deal to then, incredibly, scoring a hit. To tell him I’m quitting now will be the real end of things, and I guess that’s what I’m afraid of.
I drive to Mark’s house. I’m sure I do that. And I know that I tell him I’m quitting. But it’s funny what memory retains. It’s a fickle editor, leaving some unexpected scenes on the cutting room floor, sometimes even the ones we’d thought would be most important. So while I have an image of sunlight on Alex’s car window from that day, and a vision of his mother in the living room waving to me as I arrive, I can remember nothing about telling Mark.
I know I haven’t repressed the memory because it was traumatic. I would have remembered if there’d been a scene. I think I just don’t remember it now because the moment itself didn’t matter. It was only the inevitable conclusion to something that we both knew was coming, something that had become so obvious over such a long period of time that quitting was just the final acknowledgement. Mark knows me so well, in fact, that he probably could have told me I was quitting long before I knew it myself.
Later that week, an article runs in the Greensboro News & Record. “Athenaeum’s Drummer Leaves Band for School” reads the headline.
“How can I be angry?” Mark tells the reporter. “[Nic] has been very dedicated for a decade. He put off going to school, and it’s not like a community college. Now, it’s time for him to move on, and we’ll pull together and move forward.”
Diplomatic and supportive. That’s all Mark ever is. But if his feelings were hurt, and they might well have been, I don’t think it happened on the day that I quit. I think it would have happened well before that, during that long stretch of time when our tempos were heading off in two different directions, almost as if the music itself was telling us where we would go.
From Bang Bang Crash by Nic Brown. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2023 by Nic Brown.