Portland is lousy with drummers breaking from convention. By setting their drum kits out front sonically--and sometimes physically--these musicians demand attention for an instrument usually reserved for just keeping time. Brilliant players like Benjamin Weikel of the Helio Sequence, Danny Seim of Menomena, Caitlin Love of Desert City Soundtrack and Mike McKinnon of Wet Confetti are threatening to turn Stumptown into a two-stick town. And leading the charge is Talkdemonic's Kevin O'Connor, a drummer who builds the entirety of his charged folktronic music around his fierce ability to hit the skins.
Started a year and a half ago as a solo project, Talkdemonic is O'Connor's answer to an instrumental music scene that, he thought, felt flat. A fan of instrumental hip-hop and electronic music, O'Connor wanted his music to emulate that sound but offer a more dynamic performance element.
"I'd go out to the shows and see guys standing behind laptops and the music sounded so good, so pure, but there was no show," says O'Connor, sitting in a Southeast Portland restaurant, his curly blond mop overshadowing his face. "So I thought, what if I made all that music that can sound so good on the laptop myself, but then also rock out on the drums and actually have something going on?"
This past spring, Portland's Lucky Madison records released Talkdemonic's first album, Mutiny Sunshine, a collection of 14 short instrumental arrangements. O'Connor's drumming shares space with melodies played on acoustic guitar, analog synth, a harmony bass and more. He's also sharing musical duties with violist Lisa Molinaro and flautist Ashley Allred, who will play as part of Talkdemonic on Saturday at Lola's Room. On the album O'Connor's musicianship is apparent, but the mix is so subtle and unobtrusive that at times the drums become just another instrument.
In live shows, though O'Connor puts his drumming on display. While the prerecorded tracks pulse from his laptop, O'Connor transforms his drum kit from a metronome into an instrument he can manipulate. Pushing and pulling rhythms, O'Connor leads the listener step by step from a steady hip-hop rhythm to a manic musical pitch filled with cymbal crashes and improvised fills. O'Connor's subtle body language and his taste for both the bombastic and the measured help him emote anger as deftly as joy or sadness--all this without opening his mouth.
Such range of expression seems even more impressive considering O'Connor has never taken a drum lesson. "I think the best musicians aren't trained at all," he says. "They just train within their own head. They never have to deal with any guideline or limitations."
Thankfully, one of those guidelines O'Connor never learned is the one that tells him he belongs at the back of the stage.
Talkdemonic opens for the Joggers and Menomena Saturday, July 24, at Lola's Room, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-0047. 9 pm. $6. 21+.