September 14, 2017 | by Andrew K. Lau Photo by James Rexroad
“I’m overextended, that’s the bottom line,” laughs Sara Lund from her home in Portland, Oregon. While giving me a rundown of her current projects, she came to a halt after naming four different bands and had to think if anything was missing: Hungry Ghost, Secret Drum Band, Nocturnal Habits, and Conformity Contortion. On top of all that, Lund is also a part-time teacher at a local elementary school and conducts private drum lessons out of her home. Oh, and she’s a parent as well. How does one make all this happen? “I don’t know,” comes her good-natured sigh. “It’s all good stuff, I don’t want to give any of it up. I would choose to not work jobs as much, but music doesn’t earn me a single penny; two part-time jobs is a lot, one is totally manageable.”
Even though it’s a reality for most musicians, to hear someone of this woman’s caliber reveal that music earns her zero dollars is always a stunning revelation. If there was any justice in this world, Sara Lund would be extremely wealthy; her work alone with Unwound, the critically acclaimed, hard-working trio who toured often and won hearts between years 1992 and 2002, should’ve made her a millionaire or at least comfortable for those retirement years. But listen up, kids: Street cred is rarely (if ever) transferable to cold hard cash.
Despite it all, Lund remains a venerable force in the Northwest music scene. Conformity Contortion is her collaboration with keyboardist Thollem McDonas, who grinds away at his modified keyboards and effects while Lund does some of her heaviest drumming making this “half improvised, half composed” a brilliant free-form concoction; their latest, Perception Management was released this year on the Personal Archives label. Though not as involved with Secret Drum Band as she is with her other groups, Lund melts effortlessly into this experimental collective becoming an integral appendage this percussive Saraswati. Dynamics, their first album, was released in August on XRAY Records and a West Coast tour followed.
Then there’s Hungry Ghost, which was originally a trio consisting of Lund, guitarist Andrew Price (Irving Klaw Trio), and bassist Lorca Wood (The Drags). Their second release, Let The Healing Begin, takes up with the same bluesy stomp their self-released debut left off five years ago; the difference, though, is the band in now a duo, as Wood left the band last year. Lund’s sharp drumming attack neatly crashes into Price’s aggressive riffs and continues to impress and inspire. Despite the instrumental talents of these two, the album’s real payoff is delivered each time they intertwine their voices which, luckily, is often. Lund’s singing is much more prominent and confident here, turning Hungry Ghost into a serious force. But the world will have to be patient, however, as the inevitable adult life responsibilities, differing schedules, and the annoying work of trying to find an interested label have kept Let The Healing Begin on the shelf. “Months go by without us doing anything,” she says, “and then we'll get a surge of motivation, align all the schedules and progress will be made; [we’re] determined to get this thing out there somehow, though!”
So, there was plenty to talk about, and during our hour-long conversation we zigzagged from dealing with fastidious drum nerds, equipment hassles, the perils of touring, and the unavoidable gender issue.
NO RECESS!: How long have you been a drum teacher?
SARA LUND: A couple of years. I started off really slow; it took me years to get up the nerve to do it because I never took drum lessons, so I didn’t even know what happens. I just kinda figured out [playing the drums]; why can’t everyone else figure it out? [laughs] One of the people I play with in Secret Drum Band, Lisa Schonberg, has been teaching lessons for 20 years or something, so I talked to her a lot about what she did, and then I took a few lessons myself. So I had some ideas to start with, and I kinda wing it most of the time. I have a few things in my pocket, the first lesson always looks the same. I had two or three students for two years, and then I got on [Portland’s] Revival Drum Shop teaching roster a little over a year ago, and now I have 20 students. So I usually end up teaching 12 or 13 [lessons] a week.
NR!: Do you enjoy teaching kids more or adults?
LUND: My niche is adults: women and beginners. That is by far the most enjoyable job for me. I try to mostly not teach kids because I work with them 25 hours a week [at the elementary school], and I have a little kid myself. With adults, they really want to be there; maybe they won’t practice because everyone has an adult life, but when they’re there, they do it. But with kids, no matter how much they wanna do it, there’s still some coaxing and attention wrangling you have to do.
NR!: That makes sense.
LUND: Plus, the kids I have are in the tween age and… don’t want to talk to me. [laughs] I’ve been learning so much in the process. I work out of some books so I don’t have to make everything up from scratch. I’ve been teaching myself how to read [music] which is fun… I’ve been playing drums for over 30 years and to come at it from a completely different angle is really exciting. “Oohhh, that thing I always do? That’s called a triplet!” [laughs]
NR!: You have lingo now!
LUND: [laughs] Uh-huh.
NR!: What kind of drummers were you listening to 30 years ago?
LUND: I started in school bands when I was 11, and that same year I saw Prince on the Purple Rain tour, and Sheila E. opened up, and that was pretty mind-blowing — seeing her certainly helped me know I was on the right path. And then when I was a sophomore in high school I suddenly had access to a drum set, which was in my room, and I’d listen for stuff in which I felt like I could figure out what was happening, and then I’d sit down and try to play it. I remember sitting down and trying to figure out “Tomorrow Never Knows"; I was also listening to some punk rock at the time. It was listening, figuring out if I can do it, and trying it. When I was in late high school is when I started to hear heavy stuff; [Jesus Lizard drummer] Mac McNeilly and [Fugazi drummer] Brendan Canty were my two main influences. I learned about the snare drum from Canty and the kick drum from McNeilly; those two drummers excited me, really sparked my creative spirit. Then later, anything from Can to The Meters to John Bonham, almost going backwards from Jesus Lizard. Mitch Mitchell — geez, that guy’s a pretty good drummer. [laughs]
NR!: There’s a certain agility and attack to those drummers' style, which I can see in your playing.
LUND: A groove with interesting fills and patterns that are music and not just a beat — it’s like a critical part to the music, and it’s not someone there just holding it down. There’s a time and a place for the utilitarian drummer.
NR!: Your approach is very musical.
LUND: I try to be, otherwise I get bored.
NR!: I first saw you play live at the 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis, and it wasn’t just Unwound was coming to town. For the drummers it was, “We get to see Sara Lund play…!”
LUND: Whoa! [laughs]
NR!: You guys kinda crept up on stage, and before the opening song began, Justin [Trosper, guitarist] said, “We have a problem. Sara had her hand smashed in the van door this afternoon,” and you kinda grinned and held up your bandaged hand and the pocket of us local drummers were immediately crestfallen. But you played as if nothing had ever happened. I’m sure your perspective is different, but we didn’t notice any damage to your drum expertise.
LUND: Yes, I remember that night very well, and for the record, it was Justin who slammed my hand in the door. [laughs] My fingernail still grows funny, and I show it to him every now and then, and he buys me dinner. [laughs]
NR!: You have a memento from that show, how nice!
LUND: I think that was from our last tour in 2001. Well, playing through the pain… it’s amazing what the adrenalin from playing can get you through, if you allow yourself to do it. I mean, for one thing, when you’re on tour, you’re just exhausted all the time. But when you play, you somehow conjure this mystical energy from somewhere and give it your all. I mean, sure, there’s plenty of crappy shows, but as long as my gear isn’t falling apart, as long as I’m not distracted by shit being in the wrong place, or...
NR!: ... the hi-hat creeping away from you.
LUND: Yeah, or the kick drum creeping away…
LUND: I’ve had that happen at more shows than not; for years on tour I’ve tried so many different things. I literally brought two large cinder blocks on tour. For a while I brought two giant nails and a hammer, and I’d drive them into the stage in front of my kick drum. At some point, someone showed me [laughs] that you need to set your kick drum so the front of it is slightly off the ground so you can dig in the legs of the kick [into the stage floor], and that solved the problem for a really long time.
NR!: I remember the first time I watched another drummer lay down a small carpet onto the stage. He had two pieces of wood bolted to the carpet and placed his kick drum against the wood, and I was amazed at the simplicity of that idea and amazed I hadn’t thought of something like that earlier.
LUND: I had a that very briefly for a few years but left it at a venue one night; it hadn’t worked into my brain. When you’re loading out, this many drums, this many cymbals, a throne… the carpet hadn’t been worked in there yet.
NR!: Yeah, my carpet itself never fit into any of the cases, it was always loose and just begging to be left behind.
LUND: They sell them now. Gibraltar makes drum rugs with the little ledge built into them.
NR!: I’m sure it would’ve taken me another 20 years to figure it out, I’m a little slow on the draw.
LUND: Of course. I worked at the drum counter at the second-hand music shop here in town for a few years, and that’s where I learned to be a drum nerd. I could identify drums by their lugs. People treat their drums like train sets! They come in and are always trying to figure out ways to add little doodads here and there. There was this one guy who brought in a picture — basically it was a room — I don’t even know how many drums, it was like he was really building a train set. Very eye-opening.
NR!: Those super-sized kits are so obnoxious. It’s hard to think someone can sit down and play them with any kind of regularity, there are so many options! “What do I hit next?”
LUND: [laughs] Well, Neil Peart has no problems figuring it out.
NR!: [laughs] I think Neil Peart is the problem! He’s so good, everyone thinks, “I can do that!”
LUND: Right. “I can’t be any good unless I have as many drums as Neil Peart!”
NR!: Going back to playing through pain, do you find your body reacting to the years of playing?
LUND: Yeah, I definitely have to. Well, everybody has to take care of their body as they get older, but I have to be a lot more proactive with my yoga and stuff like that. I’m constantly at battle with my right hip and my right shoulder. If I can be diligent about doing yoga regularly, it helps so much. Even just having that sort of awareness which comes from yoga can really help. I play a lot now because of teaching — sitting at a drum set and playing for hours a day. It’s a totally different level of intensity as it is playing shows. It’s not intense at all. Teaching has taught me the value in technique, the economy of movement because you need so much endurance — don’t move the joints you don’t need to move, you don’t need your shoulders and elbows to be flopping around, just your wrists. I always tell my students: [adopts a teacher-y tone] “You know, when you’re playing [laughs], when you’re playing in an arena, playing to the nosebleeds, you can move around as much as you want, but when you’re here practicing, try to stay very still.”
NR!: I would think your yoga practice would help with breathing techniques, which is really important and something I didn’t consider until years after starting to play.
LUND: Right, yeah! I didn’t think about it either. And now I sing with Hungry Ghost and a little tiny bit with Nocturnal Habits — boy, I really have to pay attention to breathing. I took some voice lessons, and a lot of that was just figuring out breathing. I sing a lot on the new record [Let The Healing Begin], and there’s a lot of energetic drumming while I’m singing and I’m fighting to keep it together.
NR!: Working four limbs at the same time is challenging enough; singing on top of everything else is commendable. I can’t imagine what it’s like to pull that off. You’re a busy drummer, so I would think it’d take a whole lot of finesse to get to that level.
LUND: It’s another fun challenge to learn. I’ve always enjoyed singing but didn’t ever really take it seriously. When I moved to Portland in 1999, karaoke was the thing everyone did, so I would do that and think, “Oh look, you can sing!” And I hung out a lot with Janet Weiss [Quasi, Sleater-Kinney] who is an amazing singing drummer and I was like, “If she can do it, I can do it!” [laughs]
NR!: What did you write first for these new batch of songs — the drumming part or the singing part?
LUND: Drums. I’ll have a singing part in mind, and sometimes I just have to modify the drum part for the vocal part, or I can work towards it. “How about I’m not doing a crazy fill the whole entire time? I can make the fill a little simpler.”
NR!: The last thing I want to talk about is a piece you wrote for Modern Drummer in 2010, where you bring up the issue of female drummers. The line which stuck out for me was, “Sometimes I still feel like a novelty act.” And I approach this topic tentatively, I don’t want to talk about the "Female Drummer" aspect, but at the same time I do want to talk about it.
LUND: [laughs] I know what you mean!
NR!: [laughs] I’m sure you do! Certainly more than I do. It’s important for women to know drums aren’t just a male instrument. That seems obvious, but the more examples out there, the better it can be.
LUND: For sure. When I was younger I was so deeply frustrated by the fact I could not be judged just by the merit of my musicianship, that there’s always that qualifier in there about my gender— it just drove me up the fuckin’ wall. And it still does. [Female drummers] sound different than dude drummer [laughs]. There tends to be more toms involved, [and] I’m not even going to theorize on that one — I might sound like a hippy. As long as it can get past the "pretty good for a girl" thing and the "even the best woman is not as good as the best man," I think it’s acceptable to recognize women can bring something different to the table, and [that’s] beautiful. It opens things up.
NR!: And it can teach men a few things, too.
LUND: Women are guilty for thinking we’re not as good as men. We all live in this culture together, we all live in this white male supremacy — it affects every one of us. It’s bad for everyone; it’s bad for the white men, too. As long as everyone can be open. Men can learn from women, women can learn from women.
NR!: The words “Modern Drummer” makes my skin crawl, as it brings up macho imagery and photos of drummers I have no interest in, and then to see your name by that magazine’s logo... I just smiled because I never thought I’d see the day.
LUND: Me neither.
NR!: How did that come about?
LUND: The only way I could get in Modern Drummer was to write my own article. [laughs] They sure weren’t going to do a piece on me, although I have had my name mentioned in there before;[Blonde Redhead drummer] Simone Pace gave me props many years ago. This was when I was working in the drums shop, and one of the regular drum nerds brought it in, and I was suddenly elevated in all their minds. [laughs] It was when the Corin Tucker Band record came out [2010's 1,000 Years on Kill Rock Stars] and [the magazine] asked if I wanted to write about myself — it was a regular blog feature.
NR!: “Here’s one of the drummers who we probably won’t reach out to…”
LUND: [laughs] “… and we won’t take the time to write about them ourselves.”
Watch Unwound perform at the Jabberjaw in 1993
Listen to Conformity Contortion's "Tomorrow You'll Visit Why"