Jojo Mayer is one of the greatest drummers to have ever walked our planet, not only because of his skill level but because of his unrelenting search for creative freedom and musical expression. A jazz drummer by heart, it didn’t take him much time to face a harsh reality in America – the spirit of jazz wasn’t in jazz music anymore. That’s when his American adventure really began.
Serge “Jojo” Mayer was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1963. His parents are Swiss and were living in Rome, Italy at time, but his mother felt safer giving birth to him on a Swiss hospital. After Jojo’s birth, the Mayers moved to Hong Kong, where they stayed through Jojo’s early childhood. At about 2 or 3 years of age, Jojo Mayer was already banging on stuff while listening to music from the radio and record players, and even during live concerts. Thus, his parents gave him a “Pearl” snare drum and a hi-hat stand.
Jojo Mayer grew up in a very musical and artistic household. His dad had played jazz bass as a professional and was the musical director for the “Hilton Hotel”. Jojo was fortunate enough to be exposed to many different styles of music at a very early stage of his life. He recalls listening to bands and artists like Tito Puente, Oscar Peterson, Frank Sinatra, “The Beatles”, and James Brown among others. He was also exposed to the lifestyle of music at a very early stage of his life. Jojo Mayer’s parents always took him to watch live gigs. Due to this he was able to enjoy live performances from “Led Zeppelin”, Jimmy Hendrix, Miles Davis, and “Whether Report” (before the arrival of Jaco Pastorius).
When Jojo Mayer was around 5 years old, his family moved for good to Switzerland since Jojo was nearing the age of going to school. For Jojo’s 5th birthday, his dad bought him a 1957 “Sonor Star” drum set. The kit actually belonged to Kenny Clark, before selling it to a music store in Zurich. Jojo Mayer’s dad had played with Kenny in Paris in the late 50s, so when he saw the kit at that music store he was able to recognized it immediately.
One of Jojo Mayer’s first childhood memories was of him sitting in with his dad’s band on a sound check. He remembers playing a tune by Bobby Timmons called “Moanin'”. Jojo Mayer never had any formal drum lessons. He is self-taught and learned things by watching and imitating other drummers, as well as by playing along to records. Some of his dad’s friends also showed him some stuff on the drums. When he was about 8 or 9 years old, he started getting more into rock bands/ artists like “Emerson, Lake & Palmer” and decided to spray paint his drum set black, including the rims. In 2008, Jojo Mayer donated his 50s “Sonor Star” kit, which was sitting on his parents basement in Zurich, to the “Drum Museum” in Budapest, Hungary. The kit was then restored to its original form.
Jojo Mayer got his first big opportunity to be exposed to international audiences and artists when he was around 18 years old. This came about when Jojo was spotted playing drums for his dad’s band by Jamaican jazz pianist Montgomery “Monty” Alexander. Monty was about to embark on a summer tour but needed a drummer for it, so he invited Jojo Mayer to join him. At the time, Jojo was already into rock, electronic music and the “Miles Davis Quintet”, so his playing was reflecting a lot of these styles. The band went through major European festivals, enabling Jojo Mayer to sit in and play drums with legendary jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone.
After the tour ended, Jojo Mayer started working on building a solid career out of his drumming. Since Switzerland did not have that much of a music scene, Jojo eventually began working and living in countries like France, Germany and Austria, for short periods of time. Jojo Mayer became as commercially successful as artistically unsatisfied. He was in a pretty comfortable situation at this point in his life, being able to easily picture where his life was going – Jojo the corporate drummer, a drummer who gets hired to do studio work. He was also getting frustrated with what he was hearing from people, whether regarding music or his career choice, and since he always had the dream of drumming for some of his heroes he felt that some adventure was in order. Also, if Jojo Mayer wanted to be a contender in the world of the music he loved so much to listen to, he had to be where that music was made – United States of America.
When Jojo Mayer was in his mid-twenties, a friend of his he went to school with gave him the opportunity to stay with him in New York, so Jojo could check the music scene and the city with his own ears and eyes. Jojo accepted the invitation and decided to stay in New York for three months. When he arrived in New York city he felt like if he was actually getting home for the first time in his life. About five hours after landing in the United States, Jojo Mayer decided he had to relocate to New York permanently.
“The thing that gave me the confidence to come over here was that I had backed up a lot of American musicians who played in Europe, people like Monty Alexander, Dizzy Gillespie, James “Blood” Ulmer, lots of guys. I also did some recording with John Zorn, and when I got here immediately things were happening.” – Jojo Mayer in Hall, Stanley. “Drum Magic.” Talking Drums Magazine Sep 1996.
The same day he got to the United Stated he ran into John Zorn, who asked Jojo to play with him in a gig later that night. Three months later Jojo Mayer returned home, setting his sights on saving as much money as he could before going back to New York for good, so he wouldn’t have to do any part-time job for a whole year. During his initial stint in New York he did not gig that much. Jojo lacked the connections that would enable him to work frequently as a sideman.
Being a self-taught drummer, Jojo Mayer never had the need to have any formal drum lessons. That changed when he moved to New York. Throughout the years of learning how to play drums by himself he had developed some bad habits, and felt that something was missing in his playing. He was fortunate enough to get access to top drum teachers like Jim Chapin and Joe Morello. The lessons Jojo Mayer got from these gentleman were informal ones, but were nonetheless greatly beneficial to his development as a drummer. Jojo Mayer recalls Jim Chapin teaching him the Moeller technique in a hotel room at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Jojo Mayer went to New York to play jazz primarily. After about a year and a half he understood he was about 40 years late for that. He felt that as a cultural institution, jazz was not happening anymore. It just had a whole different meaning at the time than in its heyday – between the 1930s and 1960s. Jojo Mayer loves the cultural relevance of jazz music and it’s improvisational approach, but feels that academics killed it. For Jojo, the tradition in jazz is exploration and evolution; jazz is all about spirit and not about the discipline of the style.
This lead Jojo Mayer to gravitate towards communities where musicians were getting a lot more into experimentation. At this time in his life he was recognizing the spirit of jazz more in electronic bands/ artists, such as “Aphex Twin” (AFX) and “Photek”, than in the jazz music of that time. Jojo Mayer had always been a great fan of hip-hop and was getting more and more into electronic music, as well as drum programming due to his job as a producer with which he payed most of his bills. Around 1992, Jojo Mayer joined “Screaming Headless Torsos”, a band known for developing borderline music.
The turning point in Jojo Mayer’s music career came in 1994, when touring with “Meshell n’dege Occello” on her first big European tour. One of the tour stops was the “Glastonbury Festival” in England. While at the festival, the band had a day off. Jojo Mayer decided to check an electronic music party that was happening in one of the tents at the festival. The DJs were playing drum ‘n’ bass to a crowd of about 800. Jojo Mayer noticed that people were dancing to music that displayed advanced drum beats, instead of the typical and simple 4-on-the-floor drum beats heard in most forms of dance music. This was an eye and ear opener for Jojo. After this life changing event, he began to experiment different approaches for playing drum ‘n’ bass drum beats on an acoustic set. The more he was able to succeed in it, the more he began thinking about connecting the improvisational world of jazz music with the all new and fresh textures of electronic music. Jojo Mayer was on to something. He began feeling that he could definitely use this total new approach of mixing jazz concepts with electronic music to do just like his heroes and leave a distinctive mark in the world of music.
In 1996, Jojo Mayer left “Screaming Headless Torsos” for personal reasons. Also, for the second time in his life he was taking a plunge and adventuring himself in a new and different world from where he was at. He felt it was time to move along with his jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass project. He began by assembling a crew of musicians who understood and enjoyed the world of jungle/ drum ‘n’ bass music, to form a band to play live drum ‘n’ bass with musical instruments. The band would eventually be called “Nerve“. In order to formulate and work on this brand new concept of his, Jojo Mayer needed to have a weekly party, a test tube where he could see how well his brainchild would behave in a live setting.
The weekly parties started being held in a small club called “Izzy Bar” in New York. In about a couple of weeks, or months, the show started having a lot of success. Because of this, Jojo Mayer was forced to find a bigger space for the party to take place. So in 1998, “Nerve” started having a weekly party on Tuesday nights on a club called “Shine”. The party was called “Prohibited Beatz“.
About two years after its inception, in June of 2000, “Prohibited Beatz” was cancelled. However, this would not be the last the world would hear about Jojo Mayer and his band “Nerve”. In 2010, “Prohibited Beatz” would once again rise to prominence in New York, with “Nerve” performing weekly parties on a club called “Nublu”.
Jojo Mayer’s main drumming influences are Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette.
Jojo Mayer has performed and/ or recorded with artists that cover a wide range of musical styles. In 1986, “The Intergalactic Maiden Ballet” with Jojo Mayer on drums, released their first album. In 1989 they would release their second effort – “Square Dance” – featuring John Zorn. Jojo’s drumming can also be heard on the album “N.Y.C Impressure” (1992) of “Harry Pepl Quartet”. In 1994, Jojo toured Europe as a backup musician for “Meshell n’dege Occello”, took part in John Medeski’s release “Lunar Crush” and in the third release from “The Intergalactic Maiden Ballet”, which was called “Gulf”. Jojo is featured on the self-titled debut album for the “Screaming Headless Torsos” (1995) and on “Delirium Tremens” (1998) for “Sulfur”. In 2000, his drumming was recorded for the release of “The Vienna Art Orchestra” second album “Artistry in Movement”.
Jojo Mayer has also performed with Vernon Reid’s “My Science Project”, “DJ Spooky”, Gerald Veasley, John Zorn, Chico Freeman, George Adams, Hiram Bullock, Leni Stern, Wolfgang Puschnig – as part of the Friedrich Gulda’s “Paradise Trio” – Steve Coleman’s “5 Elements”, “Passport”, Wolfgang Muthspiel and “Wah Wah Watson”, among others.
After “Prohibited Beatz” was canceled, Jojo Mayer and “Nerve” continued working on their music. It would take 7 years until they’d release their first album. This was so because as a band, “Nerve” was taking the electronic music from the digital to the analog domain (to acoustic instruments). So by creating an album they would be doing the opposite, which seemed useless to Jojo Mayer. Eventually, he decided it was a good idea to record an album, since it would broaden the worldwide awareness of “Nerve”. Thus in 2007 the album “Prohibited Beatz” was launched. In 2010 they abandoned the whole idea of having albums and started releasing downloadable EPs. The first two were released in 2010 and the third one in January of 2011.
Besides playing with “Nerve”, Jojo Mayer keeps himself busy with his jazz band “Depart“. After a stint between 1984 and 1995, the band returned with the releases of “Reloaded” (2006) and “Montain Messenger” (2008).
Jojo Mayer has been featured in the “Modern Drummer Festival” in two different occasions – 1998 and 2005. Both of these appearances were recorded and can be watched on “Modern Drummer Festival 1998” and “Modern Drummer Festival 2005” DVDs. In 2007, “Hudson Limited” released one of the most popular drum DVDs to ever be produced regarding hand technique – “Secret Weapons for the Modern Drummer” by Jojo Mayer. This 2-disc DVD works as an encyclopedia for teaching the physics and mechanics behind basic to advanced hand techniques.
2002 marked the year “Sabian Cymbals” started releasing Jojo Mayer signature cymbals through their “Vault” series. They have released a 21 inch “Fierce” ride and a 13 inch “Fierce” hi-hat, and also 16, 17, 18 and 19 inch “Fierce” crashes. In 2011 “Sabian” released the “Omni” cymbals, designed with Jojo Mayer for their “AAX” line. Jojo also acts a consultant for “Sonor’s Jungle Kit”, and has collaborated with “Vic Firth” on designing his signature drumstick.
Jojo Mayer is regarded as one of the most advanced drum set players in the world, in what concerns technique. He displays a ton of finesse and control whenever he sits behind a kit. He knows how to execute a lot of different techniques flawlessly, plays in both matched and traditional grips and is extremely fluent with drum rudiments. The coolest thing here is that for the most part, he is self-taught. This means that throughout his life as a drummer, Jojo Mayer had to find his own solutions technique-wise. He went through a lot of frustrating moments, to be able to find solutions that worked best for him. Trial and error were his teachers.
Taking a look at what was just written in the last paragraph, and considering Jojo had to relearn certain concepts about hand technique, he was still able to become one of the most exquisite drum set players ever. This comes to show two things. First, it’s entirely possible to achieve a level of proficiency equal to the one shown by Jojo. He practiced a lot when he was younger, and that’s actually the only thing you need to get better faster, spend time practicing. If you take in consideration that Jojo Mayer didn’t have the same information available to him as you do nowadays, this means that your learning curve could actually be smaller than his. You have all the information you need at your disposal with books, DVDs, and free drum lessons and discussion forums on the internet. So, don’t ever think it’s not possible to be like some of your drum heroes, they were like you one day.
Another thing we can learn from Jojo Mayer’s experience is to try to learn things correctly the first time, so you won’t have to lose time relearning things again, like he had to. Once again, Jojo didn’t have the tools you have at your disposal nowadays, so it was way harder for him to know the right from the wrong. You have all the information you need to play the drums at your disposal, you just have to take your time, be patient and practice. Acquiring a set of skills like the ones Jojo Mayer has takes a lot of hard work and years of practice; keep at it and you’ll see big results.
Although Jojo Mayer might’ve been better off knowing exactly how to approach technique and drumming, he feels that falling on his face many times actually helped him conceiving his own paradigm in what regards technique, and also helped him develop his own voice on the drum set. This doesn’t mean it’s awesome to have to struggle a lot to learn concepts or patterns. This means that Jojo spent most of his time developing his own ideas, because those were the only ones he had to work with, besides the ones he heard on concerts and in albums. So remember that while working on any instructional product, your goal shouldn’t be to just get through it and move to the next book/ DVD. You can of course have that as your goal, but you’ll lose a ton if you do so. Think of patterns in drum books, DVDs, and even in songs, as templates. You learn the template first, and then if you take it and change it up in many different ways, you’ll start coming up with new patterns and concepts of your own. This way, just like Jojo did, you’ll be working on your own voice, making you that much of a better musician.
When learning any new concept remember to keep an open mind and to think critically. Just because something is seen as the “status quo” doesn’t mean it will work as well for you as it does for others, or that you shouldn’t strive for finding different solutions if you so desire. Drum technique is always evolving. Just like Jojo Mayer came up with some techniques and concepts of his own, one day it may be your turn to come up with a new concept or technique no one knows about.
Another interesting aspect of Jojo Mayer’s playing is his bass drum technique. Nowadays, Jojo uses a single bass drum pedal exclusively, but in the late 80’s he played a lot of double bass and actually performed with heavy metal bands. Although using a single bass drum pedal, Jojo has found and developed a technique that enables him to play a very fast stream of notes with only one foot, much like playing double bass.
The technique he uses has two different motions to it, and could be considered as a mix of the “constant release” with the “heel toe” technique. Start by lifting the leg up into heel up position. The ball of your foot should be resting on the footboard and the beater should be resting on the bass drum skin. Then, let your leg fall down on the pedal to produce a stroke. Don’t press down on the pedal with the foot, let the leg do all the work. If you’ve done this correctly, and if you have your bass drum pedal’s spring set to a medium or high tension, the beater will hit the head and bounce back. If the beater is resting on the head after the stroke, check the tension on your pedal and double check your technique. Make sure you’re playing the stroke with the weight of the leg and not by pushing the footboard down with the foot.
After the first hit, you’ll have your foot resting on the footplate. For playing the next stroke move your leg up, letting the ball of the foot rest on the footboard. Because of this, the beater will hit the drumhead once more. After this stroke you’ll actually come back to the initial position, and will be ready to repeat the technique once again. This repetition is what gets the constant stream of notes. The biggest issue with this technique is in getting all notes to sound the same at higher speeds, so start practicing this technique slowly and focus more on consistency of notes than on speed.
There is one notion about Jojo Mayer that sometimes goes by unnoticed. First and foremost Jojo is an awesome musician, all his facility and technique prowess exist with the purpose of serving the music. He didn’t start playing technically demanding electronic music on his acoustic drum set as a way to showcase his chops. He did it because of his love for electronic music, and because of the possibilities this type of music gives him in terms of artistic expression. Remember to not focus exclusively on technique. Play your drum set, play along to music, and play with your friends. Have fun making music with your drum set, after all, that’s what this musical instrument was made for.