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With Drums Richard Foster , March 12th, 2021 08:49

Rutger Zuydervelt’s lockdown project, stitching together bursts of stick work from the likes of Tony Buck, Greg Saunier, and Yuko Oshima, proves an insightful glimpse into the downtime of musicians, finds Richard Foster

If any record ever needed to be chosen to demonstrate the protean nature of making or listening to music, then I would suggest you listen to Machinefabriek’s With Drums. The often fleeting auditory qualities of Rutger Zuydervelt’s latest release, crammed full of percussive divertissements, let us do a multitude of things. We can ignore the record, or pay passing reference to it whilst doing something else. We can quickly process what’s going on (it’s Machinefabriek with lots of contact-book pals, and drums, from other pals), and consume appropriately, in our allotted digital spaces. We can also indulge ourselves and play footsie with it by decodifying the witty titles, or dive fully into the wormhole that is waiting for us and imagine how Zuydervelt created these mad worlds in miniature.

Maybe the protean element of With Drums also has something to do with the incremental, scrapbook nature of its construction. For this is a phenomenal project, with upwards of 40 musicians involved, from his buddies in Dutch alternative and experimental scenes such as René Aquarius from Dead Neanderthals and Leo Fabriek from the Julie Mittens to the likes of Thor Harris, Anja Jacobsen, Greg Saunier, and Tim Branes, who need no further introduction.

Zuydervelt’s own notes on the making of his record reveal both the clinical, surgical nature of making music at one remove and the human impetus to overcome the current imposed social distances. This core duality that drives With Drums luckily allows us to bypass the tropes we have come to associate with any solo lockdown project. Zuydervelt documents where he first saw the collaborators in action, or how he first got in touch with them. He hints at why he wanted to put them together. He edits and reforms their contributions. The notes may seem straightforward (again, you can enter the level you want to read them at), though at some point we see more clearly that this is a structured, even cussed way of creating something out of nothing with virtually everyone Zuydervelt knows. It’s a phenomenal conceit.

And one that reveals the human impulses that drive musicians to make music. If we take the notes for the track ‘TB SC YO - Machinefabriek ft. Tony Buck & Sylvain Chauveau & Yuko Oshima’ we see Zuydervelt giving very different reasons for piecing the elements precisely together whilst creating his aural theatre space. The Necks’ Tony Buck gets a fan-worship pat on the back. Sylvain Chauveau is contacted because Zuydervelt wants “some tuned percussion”. And Yuko Oshima, a name previously not circulating in Machinefabriek’s orbit, is contacted because of a tip-off from a friend. The resultant track, all one minute-something of it, is an almost otherworldly transfer between serene reflection and some tumultuous bursts, akin to the last-gasp spins of a washing machine cycle.

With Drums also often seems to masterfully document musicians’ downtime. That idle second in an afternoon’s soundcheck, trying out a fill whilst half listening to the mixing desk asking for more bass on the toms, or the guitarist wanting to hear more reverb on the monitor. The awful, draining, necessary processes that Georges Simenon, talking of another artistic discipline, called mixing the plaster. It’s a record that puts strange incidental sounds on the map, the uncategorizable elements that live in limbo between being experienced as interesting sounds and defining, or informing some larger piece.

But then, collecting and processing “real” sound worlds from people and places is what Machinefabriek did back in those strange times when we could all actually meet people. Rutger Zuydervelt loved the messy unexplained elements that went with making music. I’ve seen him making holy noise on a big stage with jazz terrorists Dead Neanderthals as part of DNMF and sitting at a table in a community centre, creating the most unobtrusive of soundtracks to Dutch poetry readings. And With Drums shows that collaborations, however painstakingly put together, take on a new guise every time the mic is switched on. A nearly identical line up to the track previously mentioned, ‘TB YO MW - Machinefabriek ft. Tony Buck & Yuko Oshima & Mike Weis’, gives us a very different, very zen passage of sound. Taken collectively and over time, With Drums reveals itself to be a living, organic album with each track - despite being on average around a minute in playing time - revealing new, unexpected shades of meaning. It’s almost like Zuydervelt made a mini puppet theatre with the players as tiny actors.

And this realisation helps the record grow on the listener. There is so much to take on board here, for one we have 24 tracks with enough musicians to play two separate football matches simultaneously. And each track is maddeningly short, and difficult to get to grips with at first go. As such I find With Drums impossible to listen to as a set of individual pieces, preferring to digest it as a whole. After a while an appreciation of the work, and the construction needed, and the hours and hours of listening needed by Machinefabriek, to make it all fit, to make it something that can’t just pass you by, start to imprint themselves on your consciousness. And then you start to realise that this is a very great album indeed.