It’s a quiet Wednesday evening in Atwater Village as a whispery caravan of cars turns down a side street toward the neighborhood’s Swing House Studios. Here, acclaimed photographer Deirdre O’Callaghan is having the launch for her 250-page-plus coffee table book, The Drum Thing, featuring 200 stunning images of close to 100 drummers.
The increased traffic in the area is due to the large number of the drummers featured in The Drum Thing converging for the launch, including Queens of the Stone Age’s Jon Theodore, Death Grips’ Zach Hill, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Leah Shapiro, Beck/Atoms for Peace’s Joey Waronker and Autolux’s Carla Azar. Those might seem like big names to many fans, but they're the ones gasping in recognition as living drumming legends James Gadson, John “Drumbo” French, Jim Keltner, Bobbye Hall, Jim Sclavunos and Dale Crover make their way to the stage.
Two vintage drum kits plus congas and bongos are set up for a “drum-off” between some of these noted skinspersons, to be accompanied by DJ Cut Chemist. But first, Joe Wong of drumming podcast The Trap Set will sit down for conversations with a select few.
The drummer-nerd factor in the room increases as it fills up, barely overshadowed by the presence of Kim Gordon, Fred Armisen and Robert Pattinson. O’Callaghan herself flits from guest to guest, blond curly hair crackling with the room’s heightened energy, serving hot ginger and lemon drinks to some of the drummers. Positioned next to choice prints from the book, stacks of The Drum Thing quickly dwindle, carried away in custom bags filled with drumming swag. It's a lot of fuss for the one band member that is habitually overlooked.
“I am drawn to the type of personality that chooses to become a drummer, sit at the back, and be the driving force of the music,” says O’Callaghan, who was bred in County Cork, Ireland, and for the last few years has made Los Angeles her home. O’Callaghan has amassed two decades' worth of professional photography work, including a stint as one of the original photographers at Dazed (then Dazed & Confused) magazine. “There is a dedication to carrying that equipment, being the first at the venue to set up and the last to leave. Visually, I love watching a drummer perform. It’s almost like a dance, like a form of meditation. The physicality, the mental state, the focus, all of it draws me to the rhythm section.”
It was over dinner with Sclavunos, Nick Cave’s drummer, and his wife, Sarah, that the list for The Drum Thing started to form. The initial idea was a pictorial magazine feature, but as O’Callaghan started researching, she ended up in the drummer rabbit hole, expanding the idea into a book that would also include interviews, as the anecdotes and stories she was hearing from her subjects were so fantastic. The book grew from 40 drummers to the 98 seen in the final product, shot over a period of five years. The book was financed in part by a successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign, helped by several high-profile drummers; Questlove donated his drum kit as the bonus reward for a pledge of £700.
“When I started this, I wanted to show each person’s style,” says O’Callaghan, who traveled to every drummer’s home to shoot them in their own space. “There are only so many ways you can make it look interesting and varied. I started shooting detailed shots, which I am a big fan of, and portraits. Then I started shooting people outside and not limiting myself to anything, which really opened it up. What people spoke about in their interviews, I was able to include a landscape related to that. For example, Jack White talking about train tracks by Third Man Records and the sound of trains.”
Each image in The Drum Thing is unique. Whether it's Ringo Starr, Dave Grohl or Clem Burke tearing away with their sticks, Travis Barker looking warily into the camera, a smartened-up Larry Mullen Jr., a focused Stewart Copeland, the iconic profile of Questlove, or Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace deep in concentration on his kit outdoors, each subject occupies his or her own space in The Drum Thing thanks to O’Callaghan’s distinct aesthetic, a contrasting combination of raw and crisp that captures the essence of each one.
“I’m happiest when I’m working on big projects that mean something,” says O’Callaghan, whose previous photographic book, Hide That Can, took four years to complete. Her next project, Chelsea Hotel, involved living at the storied New York locale and will include photos shot over a six-year period. “As a photographer you develop so much shooting those. I love communities and getting to know communities, which each of these projects are. I find it fascinating to document scenes in communities. The Drum Thing is definitely a community.”
The Drum Thing is available now via Amazon and other retailers.