NYC musician Todd Isler first came onto our radar through his work as the drummer for Mike Gordon’s killer solo ensemble. Outside of his role in Mike’s band, Isler also is a noted teacher and author who performs as part of two outstanding New York City avant-jazz acts - International Orange and TriBeCaStan. While Isler plays the kit with Gordon, he’s also known for his hand drumming on such unconventional instruments as Pakistani gaval, uduboo and lap drum.
[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]
Just a few days before TriBeCaStan’s record release party at DROM NYC on June 9, we wanted to share our lengthy chat with Isler (pronounced ice-ler), an affable gent who has seen it all over the years. We were immediately struck by Todd’s candor and artistic integrity in this wide-ranging interview that covers his formative years, how he came to work with Mike Gordon, his time with the Phish bassist, his other projects and the life of a professional musician in NYC.
Hidden Track: How did you first get into drumming?
Todd Isler: I’ve always loved music and my parents loved music. When I was very young my sisters and I would put on these puppet shows in my basement for other kids and I would play upside-down wastebaskets and pots and pans.
When I was nine or ten, I went to this Bar Mitzvah and I was freaked out by the drums. They took me back to the drummer and he showed me how to hold the sticks. I went slowly and learned the traditional way, I bought a drum pad then I got a snare drum and then a bass drum. Finally, for my 13th birthday I got a used kit from my teacher and started taking lessons.
HT: What were some of your early influences?
TI: When I got in junior high I became a Deadhead. The first time I did acid I was car camping, which was bullshit camping, we had electricity. My friends were already into the Dead, while I was listening to pop music and Elton John and stuff like that. [The Grateful Dead's 1974 album From The] Mars Hotel kept playing over and over again, the actual vinyl record, and somehow it kept playing all night long. And by the morning, after my first trip, I was a Deadhead.
From there I started listening to Frank Zappa and began to touch on jazz. I was also into R&B and James Brown. When I went to high school, I developed a love for R&B. I was a little bit into Black Culture because my high school was probably 30-40% black and that culture was a huge part of my musical education. In 10th Grade I met this guy named Joe Hunter, whose father was half african-american/half native-american, a very interesting man, he was a big influence on me. He got me into jazz ranging from Miles Davis to Errol Garner and everything between – Weather Report, all the fusion stuff and even traditional music like Dixieland. He was also into world music and had street samba and african music, all this stuff that totally blew my mind. That just opened the floodgates.
HT: Did you focus on music in college?
TI: I went to Berklee for a short stint. The school wasn’t that hip back then. It was sort of a factory and the food was inedible, it was a rough place to be and I had no money. There were other personal circumstances that brought me back to Cleveland. In 1981 I met up with Jamey Haddad, who’s a pretty famous world percussionist/drummer, who was a big influence on me along with Paul Samuels and Greg Bandy and some other jazz guys. I went back to Cleveland where I was hanging with them and doing gigs - immersing myself in learning jazz. At that point it was full force, full throttle jazz.
Jamey also turned me on to Ramnad Ragavan who’s an Indian drummaster that started me on mridangham. That technique is what I use today on all the hand drums that I play. With Mike Gordon I play drum set mostly, but the other half of my life is a hand drumming life from the South Indian stuff. I use it on hand drums, uduboo and all these extremely cool instruments that friends of mine have invented. It’s kept me alive in New York City – being a drummer and a hand drummer has saved me. I don’t know if I could do it all on one instrument.
HT: And at some point you moved to NYC and met your wife?
TI: Yes, I moved to New York in 1985 and have been here ever since. My wife (Jenny Hill) is the horn player in Easy Star All-Stars. I actually saw her at Berklee. There were only ten women at the school at the time and I have this one two-second memory of watching her walk down the stairs in the main building and then I didn’t meet her until ten years later in New York. Over the years we’ve played together in a few different projects.
HT: At what point did you get together with Mike?
TI: There’s probably going to be drummers or musicians who read this who are Phish fans that might get angry or jealous, thinking I don’t deserve it or something because I was never a Phishhead. As I mentioned, I was a Deadhead in high school and that was my stepping stone into jazz and world music and I sort of just veered off in that direction.
Out of the blue, four years ago I got a call from this guy and he goes “hi, my name is Mike Gordon, your name was given to me by somebody,” it was like three people removed, and he was thinking of having me audition for the percussion spot in this new band he was starting. He said “I’m the bassist of the band Phish” and I said “oh yeah, Phish, I’ve heard of them.” I didn’t care, I thought alright it’s another guy calling me for a gig. It was cool but I didn’t know who he was. When my wife came home that day I said “hey, do you know this guy Mike Gordon the bassist from Phish?” She said “yeah” so I said “well he called me, he’s looking for a percussionist” and she flipped “CALL HIM BACK RIGHT NOW!”
I did an audition in New York not too long after the first call. Somehow it was on drum set, I don’t know how we made that switch, I must’ve told him I was a drummer. This was at Electric Ladyland and I had never been in there before. I was walking around touching all the Jimi Hendrix pictures for good luck. I brought some hand drums just to show him I do some other stuff.
Billy Kreutzmann had just played the kit I used which I thought was a good sign. So I get into the room and only Mike and Scott Murawski were there. Mike goes, “okay, let’s play like three bars of four and a bar of five, just this little riff.” So we did that and we play for a while and I started playing the groove of — this was really weird — I started playing Tennessee Jed. No melody, no bass line, only the drum part and he knew it was Tennessee Jed. I was pretty impressed that he was listening so hard to know that I was phrasing the melody just on drums, Tennessee Jed of all things! That blew my mind. I guess they liked me but that wasn’t it. I found out later that they had auditioned 30 drummers.
Anyways, so long story short we went back and forth, I went to Japan that spring thinking he already found somebody. I checked in with him but I didn’t want to bother him. I figured I’d give him one last text. And he said “oh, I’m so glad you wrote, it turns out we’re just putting the finishing touches on The Green Sparrow and I’m really busy and we haven’t decided yet, so stay tuned.”
I got back from Japan and wanted to see if he had made a decision. I wrote him this text, “hey I’m checking in” and at the end of the text I wrote “I know I’m your man.” I took a chance. It may be a bullshit thing to say, but it worked. Mike brought me up to Vermont on the spur of the moment and I went out to dinner with him, his wife and Mike’s mother-in-law. Mike’s mother-in-law liked me and likes to take credit for pushing him to take me, but we had gotten together and I stayed at his house. We played not long, a half-hour maybe, I went to The Barn where he was putting the finishing touches on some of the tunes on The Green Sparrow. I was just hanging out, I went home and a few days later I got a call from him, “I’d like you to be in my band.” Needless to say, I was extremely happy.
[Photo via Mike Gordon Facebook Page]