HomeA Cappella Origins: An Interview With Wes Carroll

Evan Feist's picture

I had the exquisite pleasure of speaking to Mr. Mouthdrumming himself, Wes Carroll. Being a vocal percussionist myself, I can’t explain to you how incredible it was have a dialogue with one of my idols and supreme inspirations.  I emailed back and forth with Wes a few times, which culminated in an extremely exciting phone conversation.

Unfortunately, my phone doesn’t have the capability to record, so I took copious notes. We spoke on a myriad of topics and I will try my darndest to reproduce as much of the conversation as I can, in blurb form, interspersed with the interview.

So, disclaimer aside and without further ado:

Back in 1995, Wes Carroll joined the Boston vocal band Five O'Clock Shadow.  Soon after, he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music and began to make a name for himself as one of the world's finest vocal percussionists.  As an authority on mouth drumming, Wes led private lessons and workshops around the world, and is well-known in a cappella circles for the award-winning Mouth Drumming instructional video series.  These videos are invaluable and are available at Mouthdrumming.com (and in digital download form at aca.tunes.com)

In 1998, Wes moved out to San Francisco and was immediately recruited to perform with the popular rock-band-without-instruments, The House Jacks.

He sometimes performs as a guitar-toting singer-songwriter. He is a member San Francisco's acoustic pop trio Nine Day Fall, and most recently, he joined "a cappella supergroup" Altavoz with Jonathan Minkoff.
That’s what his website, www.Mouthdrumming.com, had to say about him; this is what he had to say:
Evan Feist: Not to be starstruck, but it’s a dream come true to talk to you.  Bad rhymes aside, it’s great to hear these things from the proverbial horse’s mouth…no offense.
Wes Carroll: None taken, I’m delighted to be a horse in this metaphor!
EF: So, how important is efficiency to you?
Wes Carroll: Efficiency is the key, because efficiency of air leads to efficiency of effort. The number one physical problem plaguing beginner [mouthdrummers] is overexertion, which leads to sloppiness and frustration.  It is not enough to perform accurately; one must also perform as gently as possible.  This habit leads to the ability to be relaxed while performing, and to being able to perform for extended periods, both of which are key for professional development.
In talking about practice regiments, Wes took me through his process when he was starting out.  He said that when he first started experimenting with vocal percussion, he only practiced 2 to 3 hours a day. At that time, there were not very many vocal percussionists and so he didn’t feel pushed to develop a competitive edge. That’s why he didn’t become a classical pianist; the 8-hour sessions would be too boring. 
He would practice for a few hours, listening to himself all the while.Once he found himself getting lazy and not listening as hard, that was his cue to call it a day. 

Wes got into teaching and developed his video series because it wasn’t being taught anywhere else. Also, it gave himself a reason to “percuss” more hours a day.
When Wes was auditioning for Five O’Clock Shadow, they weren’t sure whether they wanted a vocal percussionist or set drummer. Jeff Thatcher (formely of Rockapella) had recorded some tracks for the group and they were given to Wes to learn. He recalled having been able to get 90% of it, but couldn’t figure out the last 10%. Later, he found out that Thatcher had multitracked himself 4 times to get the complex rhythms down. This presented the interesting dilemma of reproducing the functionality of these sounds. After a lot of “screwing around”, he discovered ways of producing sound to effectively and reliably produce the auditory illusion of 3 sounds at once.
I had asked Wes about “sound reinforcement”; I had meant physically through the use of acoustical space, breathing from your diaphragm, etc and the question got lost in the translation that is electronic correspondence. Instead, he answered a much more interesting question about microphones.

WC: If by sound reinforcement, you're asking me whether I think microphones are a good idea, the answer is simply "yes."  Mics open up performance options that I happen to really enjoy.
Since that answer might offend some, I should point out that I have never been much of an a cappella purist.  love the work of Keith Terry, body percussionist; I love drummers like Steve Gadd (groove!) and Neil Peart (pyrotechnical, with a capital "technical"!); I love the "VideoSongs" we're starting to see from artists like Pomplamoose ... in short, I think that technical limitations (e.g. don't use a mic, don't use your voice, use only drums even when playing pitches, video every sound you make in a song) can be really helpful creative tools, but I feel that they should only be used as long as they're useful.  I have little patience for those who claim that using a microphone makes something no longer "a cappella."  Sure, they've got a point, and I actually agree that they're right; it's just that I don't care about that point very much. For me, the question is always very simple: do I like it?  If so, great. If not, not.  By analogy, Neil Peart triggers synths with drum pads in concert not because he's a "drum purist"; he does it because he's holding drumsticks.
However, limitations are a powerful and useful tool.  For example, many of my original songs had their origins in limitations -- specifically dares!  ("I dare you to write a song about natural disaster using only three chords!" -- so began "Light Of Stars".  I co-wrote the House Jacks song "Unbroken" as part of a dare to write about desperation, which was an emotion I'd never written about.  "Animal" started as a challenge to write a song with an accent on the 2 or 4 only one time every four measures... and then my producer Jonathan (Minkoff) re-imagined it as a Tom Waits song accompanied by calliope.  And so on.)  Restrictions like these get you over the hump of staring at a blank piece of paper and wondering, "What now?"  But I don't see the value in insisting that an artist set out to limit his choices just because he or she always has in the past.  You have to try new things.
In our phone conversation, Wes said that he never performs without being close-mic’d.  On why he doesn’t use a more acoustic approach with a far mic technique, he said, “I’m all about the nuance, and I only have a small palate of sounds that would carry the 3 feet to the microphone.” 

If ever faced with a situation where he doesn’t have a close mic, he has to severely strip down his kit, which he says, “is like painting with only 8 colors”.

EF: What “warmups” and strengthening exercises do you do/recommend?

WC: Any warmup is fine, so long as it's a safe distance from your limits: your volume limits, your speed limits, your complexity limits.  Warmup is a time to get comfortable, not a time to stretch your ability.

On the phone, Wes elaborated on his personal warmup routine. He said that with 5 O’Clock Shadow, he did a bit of singing and some percussion very lightly and loosely, just to make sure things were in place and lined up correctly.  It was more of a mental souncheck than physical.  He just had to make sure that he was in the right headspace.

The House Jacks, he told me, wanted to create an organism that didn’t need to warm up. They’re a rock band, not an a cappella group. They wanted to be the band that could see each other and immediately roll onto stage. If the flight to Germany was late, they could skip soundcheck and just charge the stage. 
He always made sure he had plenty of water inside him before he hit the stage, but because he was performing so often, he didn’t feel the need to warm up. His idea of the functionality of warmups is different than the conventional one. A vocal coach would tell you to warm up, like a runner stretches before and after, to prevent damage and tightening. Whether you sing once a month or twice a day, the norm is to stay loose.  Wes warms up to achieve 100% effectiveness before he opens his mouth on stage.

EF: Dave Brown, on www.casa.org, states, “Wes Carroll does not use his voice at all when doing percussion”.  Is this true?  How and why do you do this?
WC: In general, Dave's exactly right.  I generate my lowest frequencies mostly through controlled bursts of air into the microphone capsule (and, once in a blue moon, I use lip buzz as well).
But two technicalities come to mind: 1.) when I'm called on to perform without a mic, I use my voice, being careful at all times not to strain; 2.) I have discovered that I often do use my voice in concert, but in those circumstances, I use it in a way that doesn't carry to the microphone -- instead, there are little "ghost sounds" that I make because they increase my accuracy (or simply my enjoyment).  These sounds carry though my skull to my ears just fine, but they aren't loud enough for the mic to pick them up.  And that's by design: if they were loud enough for the microphone to hear, then I'd be straining.
But, you know, that's me. Other people do it differently to great effect. It's funny how personal vocal percussion can be, even today.
I had asked Wes that in this age of crazily produced and effected a cappella, how important is it for him to be able to reproduce live what he does (or hears) on a recording.

He said that like any drummer, there’s no need to try to reproduce echo, delay, or reverb effects.  As far as impossibly produced drum kits go, it’s important to reproduce the “feel” of the recording and the functionality of what the producer and percussionist was trying to achieve.

EF: You’ve started many different groups and organizations. How easy/hard is it to go from one to another?  Is it hard to leave behind a baby you’ve birthed and help raise?
WC: Well, I'd hate to be known in the a cappella community as the guy who leaves stranded babies behind. :-)
As you say, leaving's never easy, but it helps knowing that you've left it in good hands.  I've been lucky to have some great partners in various projects, so though it's always sad to leave, it's also always good to know that the growing endeavor you've helped build is going to be fine without you.  When I'm especially lucky, things get even better after I'm gone, because that means I left at the right time.  
Obviously, I've been very fortunate: thanks to the existence and strength of the a cappella community, I've been able to meet and to work with many (maybe even most?) of the luminaries through the years, and therefore have been in the right place at the right time to form or join other groups, and I've enjoyed every one. And in each, I've made good friends. I'm grateful for that.
And to ice the cake, I've had the incredible privilege of sitting in with lots of heavy-hitters. What a cappella fan wouldn't want to sit in on a set with the original members of Rockapella?  What groovemeister wouldn't kill to be half of a drum duo at a String Cheese Incident concert?  Who wouldn't want to trade fours with Savion Glover? So it's hard to imagine that doing it some other way would have worked out better.
I'd like to claim that it's happened because I'm fearless. But really, I think it's just because I was lucky, and because the connections of the community existed in the first place. Like I said, I'm grateful.
EF: Vocal Percussion, songwriting, and math?  It was math before percussion, from what I’ve read. How do you balance being a Renaissance Man and expert in many fields?
WC: I really appreciate the way you phrased the question, Evan, but while I do aspire to being a Renaissance man and an expert in many fields, I'm far from those lofty goals! :-)
I think it all comes down to this for me: the opposite of happiness isn't sadness; the opposite of happiness is extended boredom. I just like doing stuff, and I like learning stuff.  So I try to put myself into situations where I can learn.  And sure enough, that means I learn a lot. (It also means that I look like an idiot a lot, but I try to do that part in secret as much as possible. ;-) )
EF: Where are your lessons (vocal percussion, math, etc) available?
WC: I currently teach math, mostly one-on-one and mostly to gifted kids, at my home office in San Francisco, and occasionally through video chat. [see http://www.bodsat.com]
Vocal percussion is really best done in person. Usually, that's done over a week of private workshops, of which my last was Joerg Fischer of the awesome German group Viva Voce, recently. And by the way, let me just put in a plug for Joerg specifically: what a consummate professional. I have to say, his focus was genuinely inspiring, and yet what a warm and laid-back guy. I can hardly wait to see him in performance next time I make it to Europe!
EF: I hear that you’re into puzzles. What kind and how do you express that?
WC: I am. It's a great challenge!  I participate in puzzle hunts like BANG (the Bay Area Night Game), The Game, and DASH, and I host a semi-annual casual puzzle competition under the auspices of the Ask A Scientist lecture series (www.askascientistsf.com). But the granddady of them all is the MIT Mystery Hunt, which I never did as a student, but which I've gotten into over the past few years.  In fact, my 2009 team was Beginners' Luck, which won the Hunt!  It's a great honor, but also a lot of work: we had to write the entire competition for 2010. So things have been busy around here. :-)  But check it out. It's a blast.
EF: What’s new for “that Wes guy”? The House Jacks?
WC: I've got a solo album, called "You Don't Know Me", coming out "any month now," which as you probably know is Secret Musician Code for "I thought I finished it last month and then I discovered three other things that need to get finished first!"  You can check it out (and stream it for free, as much as you like!) at http://www.reverbnation.com/wescarroll.  (Of course, my website is www.wescarroll.com, but if you go straight to reverbnation you can get to the CD directly.)
The biggest news is that the title track will be available as a download on the Xbox version of Rock Band 2. I cannot express how psyched I am about that!  But it's not finished yet, so that's keeping me busy too.
Wes spoke more about this in our phone conversation, saying that even though he finished this project 18 months ago (as of 1/26/2010), he’s still tweaking things with Producer and former CASA President Jonathan Minkoff.  Now, he says, it’s on a whole ‘nother level.  “It’s too good” he said, “and I have no idea what to do with it”. He went on to say that it’s very different from what his fans might be used to. It’s strongly techno-laced pop album where every instrument (besides some cleverly disguised vocal percussion tracks) is synthesized. 
WC: Finally, I'm flattered to still be associated with The House Jacks. Great bunch of guys!  But I left the band two years ago next month. I had been there ten years -- even longer than the founding drummer Andrew (currently touring as Kid Beyond, as I'm sure everyone here knows).
I had asked Wes, on the phone, about the recent explosion of a cappella exposure on network television and the radio.  Of “Glee”, he says he’s definitely seen the show and gets a kick out of it.  He, as I’m sure many other people can hear, notices the transition (in room tone, reverb, etc) into the musical segments of the show.  He finds himself counting the voices coming through the speakers and juxtaposing that number against the number of singing faces on screen, not to mention the phantom trombones.
“At the end of the day” he adds, “if you think you want to be a rockstar, you want to be at a stadium show.  If you want to be an actor, go watch Sir Lawrence Olivier.”  This show gives exposure and piques the interest of people who’ve never experienced vocal groups and all their glory.
He also saw “The Sing-Off” and also got a kick out of it.  “I was watching the pilot and heard myself twice, coming from and going commercial. I got a real kick out of it.”
Of this recent explosion, he spoke about a New York Times article from June of 1997 called “'Doo-Wop-a-Doo' Will No Longer Do” by Kurt Eichenwald. He said once he saw that, he said, “that’s it, we’ve made it, it’s all changed and all different now!”  Then, when he went on a European tour he said, “that’s it, we’ve made it, it’s all changed and all different now!” 

“20 years ago, there were basically 3 TV stations; now with cable and YouTube, even if you have 100 fans scattered around the world, you can get yourself out there.”  It’s no wonder Indiana’s Straight No Chaser has made it big.

EF: What can I plug for you in this interview post?
WC: As long as the members of the community here are each doing something he or she enjoys, then I've got nothing to add.  Thanks for being you, gang!

About the author:
Evan Feist has been composing, arranging, teaching, and singing a cappella music and vocal percussion for over eight years and has his Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Music and is working towards his Master' Degree in Music Education at Columbia University, Teacher's College.  He has created and managed many successful groups, such as the A Cappella Innovations’ honored Choral Pleasure, SUNY Purchase Soul Voices, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK Honors Choir.  Evan is the founder and president of Oven Feast Productions, and the business manager of Stacks of Wax Records, currently based out of Jersville Studios. He dabbles in all things musical and plays the piano, drums, percussion, trumpet, shofar, bass, and guitar.  Evan is currently building a collegiate mixed a cappella group in NYC (open to ALL students in the area)