On the vocal beat


September 15, 2006


Throughout rock history, the list of great lead vocalists-drummers has been a woefully short one, but the French Kicks' Nick Stumpf certainly makes the cut.

Influenced by the hardcore punk scene in their native Washington, D.C., Stumpf, bassist Jamie Krents (since replaced by Nick's younger brother, Lawrence) and guitarist-vocalist Matthew Stinchcomb first played together in a series of bands during their teens. They continued making music together through their time at Oberlin College in Ohio -- a musical hotbed that also produced Liz Phair and John McEntire of Tortoise -- and solidified as the French Kicks after graduating, moving to Brooklyn and linking up with guitarist Josh Wise.

During the extensive touring that supported the French Kicks' smart, melodic but punk-rock intense debut, "One Time Bells" (2002), and up to their 2004 follow-up, "Trial of the Century," Nick Stumpf led the band from behind his drum kit, though it was placed front and center onstage, and the energetic percussionist and vocalist spent as much time leaping around as he did hammering out the group's high-energy rhythms. These days, the group has recruited a touring drummer, Aaron Thurston, to perform in concert. But Stumpf still does most of the drumming in the studio, and he laid down the rhythm tracks for 8 of the 10 songs on the band's latest album, "Two Thousand."

"For me, drums are the most important thing -- in our band particularly," Stumpf says. "But in any band, it's the thing I pay most attention to, and the element in the music that I dig the most. That's what led me to play the drums in the first place. The reason I stopped playing them live is just that I couldn't play as well as I wanted to when I was singing at the same time. Plus, being behind the drum set, you have a barrier between yourself and the audience: You can't move around and directly engage in that way. Also, now that I'm just singing onstage, there is another pair of hands to play keyboards and percussion and stuff, and it just opened up a lot of possibilities that weren't there before."

Indeed, the group's sound becomes even more expensive on "Two Thousand," incorporating more complicated arrangements, more layered melodies and more intriguing sonic textures while at the same time focusing more on the way the songs are constructed.

"That was our goal going in," Stumpf says. "Usually, we do things in a very open-ended way: We try not to decide beforehand what is supposed to happen. But one thing we did this time was that we tried to develop the songs so that they all had real choruses, which is something we started to figure out on 'Trial of the Century.' Before that, we sort of thought, 'Why write a conventional song? We're better than that!' [Laughs] But it turns out that we were maybe just being lazy."

For the new album, the group succeeded in crafting more traditional verse/chorus/bridge pop songs, while at the same time maintaining a punk-rock edge and indulging a more layered and atmospheric sound (with help from producer Doug Boehm) that recalls Brian Eno's work with U2, James or the Talking Heads.

"During the recording, we were thinking ahead to getting a bigger sound live, so there are also a lot more tracks and layers and different sounds," Stumpf says. "Josh and I write a lot of the songs like hip-hop tracks, where it's basically kind of a loop; we don't sit down very often with an acoustic guitar and write melodies and lyrics. We finish the song after the fact, based on the production -- the sound, the mood and the ambience -- and whatever that suggests."

"Two Thousand" is by far the French Kicks' strongest album to date, though Stumpf confesses that the group wasn't entirely sure if had met the goals it set when it started recording.

"This was a hard one to do, and very labor-intensive, precisely because we were challenging ourselves. We had 20 songs going in, and many of them had been worked on for hundreds of hours, and we ended up scrapping a lot of them. A lot of the stuff that ended up on the record was sort of done with these very last-minute arrangement decisions, so we didn't really know what we were going to get. The night we finished it, there was a chorus of, 'What the hell did we do?'

"I feel great about it now, but it took a while. I couldn't listen to it for a while, and [producer] Dough Boehm actually said the same thing. I saw him recently in L.A., and he was like, 'I still haven't listened to it.' I was like, 'You should!' And relatively soon after that, he called and said, 'It's good!' And that's the same reaction we had, when we had a record release party and they were playing it as we walked in and we were finally able to hear like a normal record in the background and think, 'You know, I guess we did all right!' "


For those who have a hard time walking and chewing gum, the idea of singing lead vocals and fronting a rock band while playing drums is daunting. "You can drill yourself into being able to do almost anything at the same time," Nick Stumpf insists, and he did a great job filling both roles with the French Kicks for some time -- though it's interesting to note that these days, he's just singing.

Surely, if it was really so easy, we'd have seen a lot more singing drummers in rock history, but the list of the greats is pretty short. With all due respect to Ringo Starr (a great drummer, but never a very good singer), and less to Don Henley (a fine singer, but no great shakes as a drummer), here are my choices for the masters.

Phil Collins: But only with Genesis in the years immediately after he replaced Peter Gabriel, circa "Trick of the Tail" and "Wind & Wuthering" (1976).

Karen Carpenter: Tragically underrated both as a haunting and emotional singer and a simple but exquisitely tasteful percussionist.

Mickey Dolenz: Sure, he was cast to play the drummer of the Monkees on TV. But he developed into a fine percussionist, and he always had the best voice in the group. Just listen to the "The Porpoise Song."

Christian Vander: Not only did he play intensely strange and complicated rhythms with French progressive-rockers Magma while simultaneously singing, he did it in an alien language entirely of the band's own invention.