Words by Tommy Johnson
Whenever you get a minute (especially after reading this feature), go onto YouTube and look up “Speed Stick at Local 506 (Chapel Hill)”. The video – shot on October 24, 2018 – primarily features the drumming of the band members Laura King and Tom Simpson. Your eyes move towards the bright lights that glow from the duo’s drum sets in the video. Once you have settled in, you witness King and Simpson slamming their sticks onto the drums with a high level of intensity.
Going along with the heart-racing are the off-kilter guitars hidden in the backdrop. The video presents one of those frantic, unforgettable moments we all hope that unveil themselves when attending shows.
Coming out of North Carolina, Speed Stick looked to branch out of the conformity of playing safe with their recent debut release, Volume One (Don Giovanni).
With two drummers as the starting point, the supergroup distributed nine studio tracks and a single live track to a select group of musicians they handpicked: Mac McCaughan (Superchunk), Kelley Deal (The Breeders, R. Ring), Mike Montgomery (R. Ring), and Stuart McLamb (The Love Language).
This endeavor sanctioned an immeasurable wealth of opportunity for all involved musically; each song has its distinctive vibe with intricate drums attached.
Off Shelf: The band has a lot of musical influences that date back to the ‘90s. What were some of the artists that spoke to you at the time?
Laura King: Let’s see… I would say in the early 90s, 91-92, I was introduced to “indie rock.” My influences at that time were bands like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, The Blake Babies, The Breeders, Candy Machine, Rodan, Sebadoh, Helium, PJ Harvey. Before that, I grew up on classic rock, mainly like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
OS: What do you remember the first time you started performing together?
LK: I remember thinking how cool it was to play a show with no idea what we were going to play. It really added excitement to the night. I always get nervous before playing shows, but this was a different kind of nervous.
OS: Forming Speed Stick, how did the inspiration of showcasing primarily two drummers come to be?
LK: I played in a one-time performance in 2014 that consisted of 16 drummers and full kits. It was wild…really fun! I was set up next to Tommy and we had such a blast that we decided we wanted to have a drum duo project someday. Charle Chace asked me to play a solo show as a drummer, so I figured it was a great time to start that project with Tommy finally.
OS: There are some videos of past performances online that were simply captivating. Watching the rhythm that you two seemingly fall into must be challenging, right?
LK: It’s actually not. I don’t know how to explain how we get where we are going during a show. One of us will start with a straightforward drum beat, and then one of us will riff off that beat. Now that we’ve added two guitars, we sometimes follow one of their grooves. There really is no rhyme or reason. It all naturally happens, and that’s why our shows are exciting to me. You never know how or where it’s going to end up going. I will say there are always a couple of highlights of a performance we talk about post-show. Usually, it’s because we are surprised how cool it sounded to us.
OS: As the pandemic sadly continues to rage on, so does the inability to perform live in front of audiences. How difficult has it been for everyone not to be on stage?
LK: It’s definitely been a bummer, but so have our usual norms. Now that we are “hopefully” on the other side of the pandemic since the vaccines are being administered, I personally am getting really excited to play shows again. Like really excited. I feel like people who are eager to see live music are equally as excited, so the energy is probably going to be wild! I don’t know what the new “normal” for future non-virtual shows looks like, but I hope we can all sweat together again and make new memories of them one day.
OS: With a project as ambitious as Volume 1, was there any hesitation about how it would come to be what it is?
LK: There was the feeling of wondering what the songs were going to sound like, but we chose who we wanted to be on the record because we trust them. Everyone on the record has such a unique vibe. It’s cool to hear all the interpretations of the drum tracks.
OS: Was there any pushback with how you wanted the musicians to go about the tracks you sent other than what you laid out?
LK: We sent the tracks to them as if they were any empty canvas. Kinda empty. We wanted everyone to do what they wanted. There were no rules.
OS: When deciding who you would send the tracks to the selected artists, what led you to choose who you did?
LK: At first, we picked people whose bands we were into locally. Then we decided to ask people who we play or have played with. Tommy drums in The Love Language, and I’ve played with Mac, Kelley, Mike, Clarke, and Ron in other projects. The Non-Believers, R. Ring, and COLD CREAM. Obviously, Ash and Charles are permanent members now.
OS: Did the band imagine hearing the finished product from Kelley, Mike, and company?
LK: We didn’t know what to expect when hearing any of the tracks for the first time, so it was really exciting to listen to the final version. We thought some artists might go in a different direction than they did, so those songs were total surprises when we first heard them. For instance, we thought Mac would write a short punk song since that’s what we were thinking he would do when we made the drum tracks for him specifically. He ended up with a synth, experimental instrumental. Ryan Gustafson too. We thought he would do some sort of four on the floor banjo tune, and he ended up making an atmospheric synth experimental song. The possibilities were endless.
OS: How collaborative was the recording between yourselves and everyone involved, especially considering that not being together and catching that energy?
LK: The final versions of the songs were of the artists we picked for the record. The drum tracks were spur-of-the-moment ideas Tommy and I came up with when Charles recorded us. One take. It took us about 2 hours to set up and record everything. We didn’t want to overthink anything and just wanted to go for it. The collaboration that ties it all together is the whole project.
OS: Going about putting Volume 1 together, especially during a time that we have been in, have you stopped and considered that this project was timed perfectly in its arrival?
LK: We started recording the record pre-pandemic and got all the tunes back before as well. The release got put on hold at the very beginning of the pandemic. Because of the uncertainty of everything in the world, everything stopped. Months after the pandemic started, we got the ball back rolling with releasing it and went for it. I was more hesitant about releasing a record at a time when we can’t play shows and tour more than anything. That seemed unheard of, but we did it, and I’m so glad we did. The best part of releasing music during this time is knowing that someone out there might think it’s awesome, and it might make them feel happy even though it’s been such a strange and tough time. I’m happy if listeners are pumped to hear it!