Drum machines have no soul, and neither does Jordan Sobolew
Article and Interview by Ben Goldstein
Why is Jordan Sobolew, easily one of the most inventive and idiosyncratic drummers of the era, not first to spring to mind when people talk about players pushing the envelope?
It’s either because they haven’t heard of him yet, or they have, and upon experiencing the individual seismic phenomenon that is Reptoid, they suffered severe concussive amnesia.
Hearing Reptoid for the first time, it’s not uncommon for the uninitiated to assume a full band is responsible for creating such a profound mass of noise, as I did. While Sobolew is a solo performer, Reptoid is far more than a one-man band.
The “one man noise rock aneurysm” out of Oakland has perfected his signature industrial-tinged percussive pummeling over the course of two impressive EPs since 2014, Weird Energy and Scum Supreme, as well as a split with Conan Neutron & The Secret Friends. Sobolew released his tour-de-force full-length, Worship False Gods, last year on Learning Curve Records. In 2019, he earned a spot on legendary noise rock label Amphetamine Reptile’s fourteenth volume of its Dope-Guns-’N-Fucking In The Streets compilation.
Reptoid may sound like noise rock to us humans, but Sobolew effectively breaks The Jesus Lizard mold; Reptoid is very much his own lizard.
“I describe my music as noise rock because I don’t know what the fuck else to call it.”
Fascinated with electronics from a young age, Sobolew taught himself to “build, solder, carve, craft and create just about anything,” and he later studied audio engineering and studio maintenance electronics. He caught the drum bug when he was 13. After the guitarist of his previous two-piece band, Reptilian Shape Shifters, moved, Sobolew was forced to choose between starting over with a new group or pursuing his vision of a one-man drum band.
All of Sobolew’s passions have come crashing together to form Reptoid. He designed a system in which various drum triggers attached to his kit send MIDI notes to a MPC, where he’s recorded “a bunch of weird, fucked up noise samples.” His MPC runs these samples through a colossal pedalboard he keeps in place of a hi-hat and controls with his left foot. Sobolew also straps a modified respirator mask with a mic cartridge to his face to take on vocal duties, sermonizing us plebs about anti-capitalism and the end of the world as he plays. The resulting distorted, Vader-like breaths between each drum-triggered concussion fill your soul with panicked dread.
Reptoid manipulates sound and deafens listeners all in real time.
Over 15 years in the Bay Area experimental scene playing math rock, noise rock and screamo (Reptilian Shape Shifters, Groundskeeper, Occam’s Razor), Sobolew refined his innate sense of rhythm and developed his style. He effortlessly navigates complex time signatures, somehow able to remain centered amidst the busiest of instrumentals, subdivide fills within odd meters and cram note values into unlikely places. Sobolew tends to implement linear triplet phrases with toms and kick and intersperse unexpected note denominations throughout his grooves when it comes to playing fills. And he’ll often embellish his kick patterns with double strokes, which he plays single pedal using flawless heel/toe technique.
With Reptoid, however, Sobolew has greatly adapted his playing; it’s far more straightforward than previously. It’s less these intricacies that stand out to me and more the conflict and tension he creates between grounding, bass-drum driven grooves and explosive rhythmic changes. Sobolew’s pulse is more tangible, and by contrast, any syncopation he plays is jarring in the best way possible.
Despite Reptoid’s success within his esoteric pocket of the noise rock scene, Sobolew is still misunderstood. In the Noise Rock Now Facebook group — which, if you can tolerate a bunch of assholes angrily debating what falls within the genre, I recommend joining, because every now and again you’ll learn of incredible artists like Sobolew — it’s nearly impossible to find a post about Reptoid without some commenter making the ignorant and obvious comparison to Brian Chippendale’s solo project Black Pus, another one-man drum band.
Of course, all one-man drum bands must be identical…
“Obviously, I’ve studied how [Chippendale] does it, and that inspired me to do my own thing, but the way I do it and the way he does it are totally different…,” Sobolew said. “In a way, it’s almost a put down, because I’d rather you listen to my music and think your own thoughts about it.”
To my dismay, one comment on a Reptoid video read, “So he plays drums karaoke style?” — identity mercifully withheld. See Ruins Alone for “drum karaoke.”
Responding to this misperception in our interview, Sobolew explained, “I don’t want anyone to think I have prerecorded tracks that I play along to.
I realize there’s a different comprehension between those comparing Reptoid to other one-man drum bands and those who just don’t understand what the fuck’s going on when they witness the spectacle of Reptoid. I have no problem with the latter, but it’s incredibly lazy to pigeonhole Sobolew. Black Pus, Greg Fox and his work with sensory percussion technology and even André Duracell may seem like natural comparisons, but Sobolew’s music, with its abrasive, enveloping noise samples, elaborate song structures and intricate rhythms, is only similar functionally in using drums to trigger sounds.
Beyond sounding unlike any other one-man drum band, Reptoid sounds unlike any noise rock band that’s popped up in the last 30 years the genre has been around. The level of artistry and originality Sobolew achieves as one person is beyond the capacity of most bands in their best moments of collaboration.
The simple truth is this: No other drummer does what Reptoid does.
Interview with Jordan Sobolew
You’ve been playing drums since you were 13, and you’re entirely self-taught. What made you want to start?
I just always was drawn to drums. In elementary school, I played saxophone in the marching band, but I always wanted to go bang on the drums… At some point, I told my parents, “I’m not into this. Buy me a drum set. I want to play rock ‘n’ roll!” My dad bought me this huge ‘80s double kick kit with five toms. It was totally ridiculous, and I started playing left-handed because I didn’t know what I was doing
I don’t know what it is about drums. It’s just really satisfying to beat on something in a creative way.
What was the process of teaching yourself like?
It was like, “Hey best friend, you’re going to play guitar. I’m going to play drums, and we’re in a band now, even though we have no idea how to play our instruments,” so just us trying to mimic our favorite bands.
Some of your current favorites, Zach Hill, Brian Chippendale and Gabe Serbian, are all also self-taught. Do you recommend looking to self-taught, experimental players for inspiration?
I’m not necessarily looking for drummers who are self-taught. It just so happens that I’m into all these drummers who have really unique styles and are doing something unconventional.
At what point did you discover those guys, and how did your playing change after that?
I got really into Hella in 2005 or 2006, and I got into Lightning Bolt around that same time. That changed a lot for me. I was really into this kind of chaotic hardcore/screamo thing at the time, and then, all of the sudden, I was like “Wow, there are these bands playing with so much energy and precision and power that aren’t aggressive per se, but the way they’re playing is super aggressive.”
Must be pretty awesome to have played shows with Black Pus and have Serbian as a fan of yours.
Yeah, in Reptilian Shape Shifters we (and Chippendale) played a few shows together. It felt really good to have him be into what we were doing, to have this drummer I like a lot standing next to me as I play, studying me, and giving me compliments after the set.
I played a small garage show in San Diego and Serbian was there. He was sitting right in front of me the whole time, and he came up to me after and bought like everything I had for sale and hung out with me. That was amazing.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t view yourself as a drummer. What is it you play?
The whole thing is an instrument in its entirety. The drums with the triggers, with all of the technology, with the amps. It all has to work together in the right way or everything is fucked up, and that happens sometimes. Every little piece in the chain is crucial.
What’s it like manning your rig while drumming? Is it more intuitive in that your setup is designed for a holistic playing experience?
It’s intuitive to me now because I’ve been doing this for years, and I built it all to work a certain way. But the drumming experience is way different than playing in a band where other members are providing the music. I can’t play any fill or beat I want at any time. My drumming has to trigger the sounds I want to hear in the way that I want to hear them.
In that way, it’s limiting. I’m playing in a cage, but there’s something about working with those restrictions that lets you think of things in a completely different way.
I didn’t know you were a one-person band until after I got into your music. I was really impressed by how you fill the void — as the song implies.
Yeah, it should sound like a full band. If I was at a club, I’d want someone to walk in and go, “What the fuck is going on? How is all this noise coming from this one guy?” And I do get that reaction a lot.
I’ve had some really funny comments from people. My friend told me he heard two people interacting during my set, and one of them said, “He’s doing it all with his mouth!”
What sort of stuff do you practice?
I have a lot of prewritten material now, so I’ll just show up and play like a set’s worth of material, 35 to 45 minutes, and that pretty much completely drains me. If I have some extra energy and am feeling creative, I’ll start working on something else.
What does the song writing process entail?
It’s a lot of me just fucking with tone. I’ll have a synth, guitar, bass and a bunch of pedals. I’ll try to make interesting sounds, capture them on the sampler and see if I can drum in such a way that creates a pattern or sequence with these noises.
A lot of it is experimenting and getting nowhere. I’ll try to work on a song for weeks and then be like, “I don’t like it,” and drop it and start all over again. It’s nothing like being in a room with other people each with their own instruments. You can just write a song in one session like that. This takes a lot more time and commitment.
Worship False Gods sounds nothing like Weird Energy to me. What changed?
Weird Energy was my first attempt at being Reptoid. The vocals on that recording was the first time I did vocals in any band. It was after two or three months of trying to figure out how to be a single-person drummer band. Reptilian Shape Shifters was on permanent hiatus; now, my goal was to write a set of material for this new thing I’m working on and get out and playing [sic] shows again as fast as possible. That EP was me saying “Hey, I can do this. This is what it sounds like. Put me on your bill.”
Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of iterations of rebuilding my pedalboard and adding to it. I’ve switched from monosynth to sampler. I’ve also become a much more confident vocalist. It’s just been this journey of retooling my rig and getting used to playing this way — and it’s still going.
I’m always excited to try different things, but I’m unavoidably attracted to really loud, distorted, aggressive sounds, yelling over them, and drumming as hard as I can; those things aren’t going to change.
How do you approach recording drums
I probably don’t do anything remarkably different than most other engineers recording “rock” drums. One of the more unique things I did while tracking Worship False Gods was first recording drums without playing the cymbals and then overdubbing the cymbals. It did make the tracking process more of a chore, but cymbals can really take up a lot of sonic space in a mix. Being able to fully control them opens up a lot of possibilities and allows other sounds to fully bloom. I’m a fan of big sounding drums, and, to me, that means room mics, but unfortunately room mics can just be flooded with cymbal wash.
Is your recording set-up any different? How do you like your drums to sound?
I play the same kit, heads and tuning as any other day. I might choose to muffle them a little with tape, but I don’t like dead drum sounds. I play Aquarian Force 10 tom heads not necessarily because I love the sound of them, but because they’re the most durable head I’ve ever played, and they won’t get super pitted like every other drum head I’ve used. I play an Evans Heavyweight on the snare… I like a ringy snare. [That’s] a good compromise because it doesn’t totally kill the sound, and it’s very durable. If you drum super hard, you need to make those choices, those concessions.
I use an app to tune called Drumtune PRO. My toms are tuned chromatically in an interval. I don’t think that’s entirely necessary, but I do a lot of big tom hits with the rack and floor together with the kick. It sounds really nice if you can get that interval in.
Do you play Tama pedals because of Zach Hill?
No, it didn’t have anything to do with Zach Hill. I first got an Iron Cobra when I was still playing in bands with a double kick because it seemed like the best pedal for that. When I started Reptoid, I dropped the double kick in favor of having my left foot control a pedalboard, and I adopted a single Speed Cobra because the long footboard works well with heel/toe technique.
I didn’t know at the time whether I was using that technique or slide technique to do fast double hits with a single pedal. I figured out I was using heel/toe, which I’d developed naturally over the years — not a conscious choice to work on it. When I play my old Iron Cobra now, I can’t even do [fast doubles] on it because of the smaller footboard.
You’ve mentioned that drumming is therapeutic for you. Can you speak a little about that?
There’s something about the physical experience of exerting yourself, pushing yourself to your absolute limits, sweating your ass off, trying to overcome this challenge you’ve made for yourself. At the end of it, you feel relieved. Your mood is lighter. The world seems like a better place than it was when you started playing. There’s some kind of catharsis in that experience of pushing yourself so hard that no other thought is in your mind. You’re not thinking about whatever fucked up thing is happening in the world.
Aesthetically, you embrace David Icke’s reptilian shapeshifter theory. Is that meant to represent a figurative dichotomy between Jordan and Reptoid? Do you transform into the persona?
First, I’m going to acknowledge how problematic David Icke is as a character and the fact that he borrows from anti-semitic conspiracy theory, so I’m in no way aligned with that.
I think the reptilian conspiracy theory is interesting in that it’s very absurd. I like it metaphorically in the sense that there’s a class of people that are making decisions and manipulating the rest of the world so they can stay in control. Sure, I buy that. Are they reptiles from another dimension? Probably not.
Reptoid is kind of like a character, but it’s not like an invented character. It’s part of my psyche. In my normal day-to-day life, I’m kind of a quiet, shy guy, but when I’m Reptoid, I’m in a different mode. I can embrace a different side of myself and be outgoing, absurd and yell and scream, do things Jordan would never do.
If people gave into this conspiracy theory lore that surrounds your project, and you became a cult leader, what would that look like?
Cults are super fascinating to me. I’ve always said I’d never be charismatic enough to be a cult leader because I don’t know how to talk to people like that. I think where every cult goes wrong is by involving sex stuff, like everyone has to have sex with the cult leader — and often times kids. That’s where it goes horribly wrong. A lot of cults at their basis kind of have a nugget of something that’s good, like we want to break away from this toxic world and create our own society and have this utopian existence. That’s kind of cool, and I wish that existed without the dark side of things, but I don’t think it does.
So, if I were a cult leader, we’d just be living in the wilderness growing all of our own fruits and vegetables and attempting to live this utopian, agrarian lifestyle.
Have you ever seen Boadrum 77? That’s how I picture the Reptoid cult.
Yeah, the idea of getting 77 or more people together to drum at the same time, that’s a beautiful idea. In some of my live shows I have a friend of mine with a floor tom — I don’t know what he’s doing — he just goes, is just part of the performance…
(Pardon my interruption. I’m just a passionate Reptoid fan!)
Is that the guy who drums with loaves of bread?
They’re not loaves of bread. He made his own drumsticks out of dowels. They’re just big dowels, and of course they’re so big that the drum is destroyed after the first song. He spends the rest of the show just throwing the drum around
Ideally, the whole floor would just be filled with drums, and everybody would be able to play along.
Reptoid is your project, but to what extent is it a project for you?
It doesn’t matter if there are five people in the room or a thousand people in the room. I’m going to do the same exact thing. Even when I’m by myself practicing, I’m doing the same exact thing. I’m hitting as hard as I can, giving the performance everything I have.
So, in a way it’s for me, but not in the fact that I’m satisfied being alone doing it. Being alone practicing is just doing the work. The idea is to bring it out into the world and share it with other people. Sharing my art and what I create is my community.
When do you think you’re going to be touring next?
That’s a tough thing to answer. I’ve been very cautious with COVID. I’ve just accepted my first show offer, which is with… no, I’m not supposed to say who it’s with. But it’s in March 2022 in the Bay Area with a touring act.
If everybody turns into zombies before then, I might cancel. I hope everything is cool until then.
I really want to see Reptoid live, and hopefully you do too now. Please do your part to stop the spread.
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