Drumming for the New Duos


November 2002

By Jim DeRogatis


Why have three, four, or more when you can do it with two?

That’s the question being posed by a growing number of rock bands. The White Stripes, Local H, Cash Audio, Jucifer, Swearing at Motorists, the Spinanes, Helio Sequence, Quasi, the Soledad Brothers, and Hella are working in a wide array of different genres ranging from garage-rock to trashy blues, rockabilly to punk, and art-rock to heavy metal. What they all have in common is a decision to limit the size of the band to two members, generally guitar and drums (though Mates of State is a keyboard/drums duo, and Evil Beaver is bass and drums).

The idea of a two-man or woman-band certainly isn’t a new one. Blues great John Lee Hooker often performed with just a drummer, as did rockabilly madman Hasil Adkins and surf guitarist Link Wray. Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience or practicality: Fewer members mean fewer people to pay and transport. But just as often it’s a situation where two musicians share a unique chemistry that would only be diluted if there were three, or it’s an aesthetic decision that more instruments would detract from the sound rather than adding to it.

Drummers who step into a duo face some unique challenges. One is that they usually set up much closer to the front of the stage, parallel with their partner, and that means they’re much more visible and a bigger part of the show. There are also some particular musical hurdles that come from playing with one musician instead of several. In order to a get handle on these, I spoke with four distinctly different but equally worthy drummers in four acclaimed duos.


Unlike many two-man bands, when drummer Scott Giampino and guitarist-vocalist John Humphrey formed Cash Audio in 1994, they were determined to avoid adding a bassist. “No bass was just something solid that we knew didn’t want,” Giampino says. “We’re not anti-bass player. We get a lot of people at shows who are like, ‘So, where’s your bass player?’ It’s always bass players who ask us that. They’re like, ‘There’s a lot of cool bass lines I could be playing!’ And we’re like, ‘Hey, got your gear? Bring it on!’ And they never do.”

The band’s goal was to take the blues back to the garage, “send it through the meat grinder, turn it up, amplify it, and get a lot of power behind it.” And it has succeeded admirably, onstage and on albums such as 2000’s Green Bullet (Touch and Go). Having a bass—or a third member on another instrument—just didn’t fit the plan.

“Initially when we formed, we were like, ‘We’ll do this as a two-piece and maybe I’ll get a trigger pad to have more sounds and colors, and that just never gelled,” Giampino says. “But we tried to get a really big, full sound and represent a full band with just two guys, as opposed to sounding like a plinky guitar and a drummer. Obviously, you’re not going to hear the bass, but we didn’t want it to feel like anything was missing.”

To compensate, Humphrey (a recording engineer and co-owner of Engine Room Studios) augments his amp by running the guitar direct through the P.A. and rolling off the mid and high frequencies. And Giampino altered his playing style to become more frenetic and angular (before Cash Audio, he’d played in more conventional combos such as the Rosehips and the Mystery Girls), as well as becoming more of a showman.

“I had to be more in the front style-wise,” he says. “Maybe not more busy, but more accents, and more lively. I’m half the band, so I have to give people something to latch onto, as opposed to just playing John Bonham.” Tall and lanky, Giampino dwarfs his relatively small drum set—he uses a 20-inch bass drum and 16-inch floor tom, both 1965 Slingerlands with a blue psychedelic wave finish, a vintage Gretsch chrome snare, a couple of cymbals, and an 18-inch cast-iron pan. On special occasions, he’ll flip the pan over and fry some bacon on a small hotplate beside the drums.

“You know, we’re big guys and we’re from the Midwest,” Giampino says, laughing. “When we toured with Man or Astroman, they were like, ‘You guys are the sound of bacon cooking!’ So we decided to add that to the set. It’s a great smell, and it fits our sound, and it brings people to the front of the audience. And when they’re drunk, everybody loves bacon. It reminds people of grandma’s house.”

According to Giampino, the best thing about being a duo is that it’s just easier to get things done with two people. “We went on tour with the Quadrajets, and as soon as it ended, they broke up the band and became a two-piece, the Immortal Lee County Killers,” he says. “John always says other people are ripping us off, but I remind him that there’s been two-man bands for 50 years!” Giampino’s goal is to set up a festival bill of nothing but guitar and drum duos. “I love playing with other two-pieces,” he says, “especially live, because we just take ’em to task!”


With four albums to its credit and several radio hits including 1996’s “Bound for the Floor,” Local H is the most well-known of the two-piece rock bands profiled in this article. But it’s a new version of the Chicago duo that is currently touring in support of Here Comes the Zoo (Palm Pictures), with Brian St. Clair replacing Joe Daniels as guitarist-vocalist Scott Lucas’ partner.

St. Clair is an unrelentingly hard-hitting player who plays butt-end and uses only ride cymbals because anything lighter cracks or dents. “A lot of people have said I’m Animal from the Muppets, and I can see where they would say that,” he says. He developed his style in the punk-rock underground, playing in groups such as God’s Acre, Rights of the Accused, and Triple Fast Action, which frequently toured with Local H. In between, he worked as a drum tech for Cheap Trick.

“I knew Joe and Scott for a long time,” St. Clair says. “When I got the call to join Local H, I listened to the previous three records, and you could tell that Joe put a lot of thought into what he was doing; it wasn’t just like he walked in and threw something down. It almost sounded like his kick was playing to the vocal line. You don’t really hear that too much—Bun E. Carlos is the only other person I can think of who plays these weird kick patterns. I wanted to stay true to the band and the style, but at the same time, I’m a completely different drummer than Joe with different influences and a different background.”

The transition from a larger band to a duo wasn’t quite so difficult for St. Clair in the recording studio, because Local H does use bass guitar on its recordings. “I basically play off the bass line, which is pretty typical for a rock drummer, so I think in that aspect I may be a little bit more straightforward than Joe,” he says. But taking to his Premier Artists Maples onstage was now a different experience. (In concert, the only other instrument is Lucas’ guitar, though, like Cash Audio, the sound is tweaked by being fed through other amplifiers to boost the low end.)

“I definitely had to just take it over the top,” St. Clair says. “From the first second I get onstage all the way through to the end, it’s just so draining with Local H. I’m stage right, Scott is stage left, and we’re right up front. To sit back and just kind of play and not really get into the music, the stage would be completely lopsided. So I had to take it up a notch from Triple Fast Action, but I also found that we lock in much better as a duo than with four guys because you don’t have the other elements of someone else screwing up. Once you’re locked, you’re locked in.”

What is the biggest benefit St. Clair has found from being in a two-piece? “There’s one less person to argue with,” he says, laughing. “My advice is, if you’ve got a best friend or a wife or a girlfriend who plays the other instrument, it’s like, ‘Why should we deal with some other guy?’ A lot of times you hear about these bands where everybody hates this one guy. Well, just get rid of them! You don’t need it.”


Meg White is the youngest and least experienced of the drummers profiled here, but her direct, stripped-down style is integral to the bluesy garage rock of the White Stripes, the Detroit duo that she formed with her brother, Jack. The band scored an impressive hit in the U.K. with “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and it’s beginning to win a large audience in the U.S. for its third album, White Blood Cells (V2), garnering appearances on MTV and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

“I started playing about five years ago,” Meg says. “We actually had a drum set in the house, and basically I just went up there one day and sat down and started drumming on it. Jack started playing some guitar and it just kind of went from there. He appreciated the childlike element in it, because I hadn’t really figured out the drums yet.”

According to Jack, Meg is modest to a fault. “She’s perfect; she’s the best part of the band, really,” he says. “Her style is just so simplistic that I can work around it and work with it. We have this kind of telepathy onstage where we can just read each other’s minds. If we had anybody else onstage it would just get ruined, I think. It feels really good to perform like that.”

Meg has only played with a bassist on one occasion, when the White Stripes were joined onstage for a few AC/DC covers. “That night, it was weird having to pay attention to more than one person!” she says. But she seconds her brother’s comments about their telepathy, and she admirably navigates the twists and turns when he deconstructs the songs onstage. “The only way I can get in touch with a song every time we play it is to break it up as much as possible and destroy it and then recover it,” Jack says. “It’s like we’re doing a cover version of a song I wrote.”

Adds Meg: “I just know the way he plays so well at this point that I always know kind of what he’s going to do. I can always sense where he’s going with things just by the mood he’s in or the attitude or how the song is going. Once in a while, he throws me for a loop, but I can usually keep him where I want him.”

Meg has never taken a lesson, isn’t particularly obsessed with gear (she plays Pearl), and says her pre-show warm-up consists of “whiskey and Red Bull.” Not surprisingly, her hero is another female primitivist: Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground.

“I appreciate other kinds of drummers who play differently, but it’s not my style or what works for this band,” she says. “I get [criticism] sometimes, and I go through periods where it really bothers me. But then I think about it, and I realize that this is what is really needed for this band. And I just try to have as much fun with it as possible.”


When Ed Livengood first played in rock bands, it was as a guitarist and bassist. “I always wanted to play drums, but I couldn’t have a drum kit in my parent’s house when I was growing up,” he says. He got his first set in 1991, and he’s been behind it ever since, honing a super high-energy style that perfectly fits the psychedelic-tinged art-rock of Jucifer, the Athens, Georgia duo that he formed in 1992 with his girlfriend, guitarist-vocalist Amber Valentine.

“Early on, I was playing bass,” Livengood says. “We tried to get a drummer for a long time, and we just couldn’t find anybody. So I started playing drums, and we had this bass rig sitting around, and Amber and I one day were like, ‘What would happen if we took the Marshall and ran it into the bass cabinet?’ It sounded really good, and by the time we finally got the dream bass player we wanted, there was just too much bass. At that point, we’d already established our songwriting dynamic, and we just kind of decided it would be fun to be a duo.”

Jucifer’s sound certainly isn’t lacking, either on the recent album I Name You Destroyer (Velocette) or in live performance, where Valentine provides an icy contrast to Livengood’s frantic pummeling of an oversized kit specially made for him by Zickos. “They’re totally hand-made, and they’re just beautiful drums,” he says. “I’ve got a 26 x 18 kick, an 18-inch rack tom, and a 24 x 18 floor that’s basically a modified kick drum. The way they mike the floor tom, it kind of makes up for what the bass guitar would be doing, especially with some of the parts that I do on it. I tune it up pretty high, and it has this kind of tympani sound. I can do this thing with my wrist where I hit it and then do a kind of brush stroke to get different tones, and it’s harder to do that with a smaller drum.”

Livengood continues to drum in other side projects, but he notices some distinct differences playing in bigger bands after being in a duo. “Having a bass player there means that if you kind of mess up a beat, you can catch it better,” he says. “When there’s only two people, if you miss a part or do something wrong, it’s kind of more obvious. And now I’ m just so used to being up front, like a couple of feet from the front row or whatever, that it’s a charging experience. The audience is part of the show, and they can make the energy go way up.”

But, he adds, “The two-piece things is definitely not for everybody. For us, it was actually an accident, and it seems like the most successful two-pieces are the ones where it just kind of happens that way.”